John Grace: We are soon to have an ex-pope
From March 1 through about March 20, the Catholic church will have no pope. But it will, for the first time in 600 years, have an ex-pope -- once Benedict XVI, now by his own decision just Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, becomes bishop emeritus of Rome.
What, I am being asked by acquaintances these days, do I think of the papal resignation that stunned the world? And who would I like to see elected to become the next holder of the Chair of St. Peter?
Like many other observers of Vatican postures and policies, I was shocked by the pope's announcement three weeks ago that he would relinquish his papal tiara as of 2000 hours on Feb. 28 and look to those whose competence it was to gather in conclave in the Sistine Chapel and choose his successor.
In the days and weeks that followed, however, the shock wore off and I found myself in accord with a general consensus in the church that the pope's resignation was both a practical reality check and a gesture of great humility.
Pope Benedict's doctors had told him he should not undertake any more travel abroad and the pope himself was assessing his physical frailty -- and, say some, mental lapses -- as indicating that he could no longer carry out the awesome duties of leading an ancient church that today counts one billion adherents.
"The Holy Father is a realist," commented Cardinal Adam Maida, archbishop-emeritus of Detroit. "He loves the church very much and is thinking of what is in her best interest right now."
Two other positives can be said of the one-time head of the so-called Holy Office-the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and in that role confidant to Pope John Paul II: He is a prolific, and highly renowned, theologian, and a man of deep personal devotion to Jesus Christ and the preaching of the Gospel.
On the other hand, as Benedict XVI he struggled with finding the right tactics to cope with the terrifying spread of the pedophile priest scandal and the even greater problem of cover-ups in many dioceses and transfers of problematic priests to other assignments where they continued to have contact with children.
And that brings me to a mention of my favorite papabile cardinal, or candidate likely to attract votes in the conclave from his peers: Cardinal Christoph von Schonborn, archbishop of Vienna and president of the Austrian Bishops Conference.
Widely traveled and fluent in seven languages -- Czech and of course German, but also English, French, Italian, Spanish and Latin -- the 68-year-old cardinal also has sterling theological and pastoral credentials.
He studied in Regensburg under Fr. Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, and completed a doctorate in sacred theology in Paris. He taught dogmatic theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and became a member of the International Theological Commission of the Vatican.
He is known worldwide as the editorial secretary for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a major instrument for elucidating the "Magisterium," or teaching authority of the church and the church's interpretation of sacred scripture.
Of perhaps greatest interest to Catholics in the pews, however, has been Cardinal Schonborn's outspoken response to the crisis provoked by the pedophile and coverup scandals. In May 2010 he told the Austrian Catholic news agency Kathpress: "The days of cover-up are over. For a long while the church's principle of forgiveness was falsely interpreted and was in favor of those responsible (for the scandals) and not the victims."
He also won praise for his handling of abuse cases in his own archdiocese and for his concurring in the censuring of his predecessor there, Archbishop Hans Hermann Groer, who had dealt with such cases badly and had been removed from office.
John Patrick Grace covered the Vatican from the Rome bureau of The Associated Press in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He currently is a book editor and publisher and lives in eastern Cabell County.