For local Catholic school students, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is not only historically significant, but educationally and faithfully relevant.
Benedict last week shocked the world: The 85-year-old pope announced he would step down at the end of the month – the first pope to resign since 1415, when Pope Gregory XII abdicated to end a schism in the church.
The elderly Benedict admitted he no longer had the mental and physical stamina to effectively shepherd the church of more than 1 billion Catholics around the world.
His resignation set in motion a process, marked by secrecy and tradition, to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
Local Catholic school leaders want their students to be witnesses to history and understand its significance to their faith.
At the grade-school level, students (most of whom are too young to remember when Pope John Paul II died and when Benedict was elected) are learning about the conclave, a secret meeting of cardinals to elect a new pope, and the rules and traditions that govern it.
“We’ll give the kids the background they need to understand it,” said Deacon William Lemmer, principal of St. Andrew Grade School in Rock Falls.
Elementary-school teachers can compare the papal conclave to the American presidential election to ensure the youngest students grasp the concept.
“They know that,” said Jean Spohn, principal of St. Mary Elementary and Junior High School in Dixon. “During the presidential election [in November], we had our young children vote for [their favorite ice cream] ... and we had an ‘inauguration’ at which we presented the winning sundae.
“This is similar. With the pope, they are not part of that process of voting and choosing the next person, but they do understand the concept of an election.”
Students of all ages hopefully will get to watch television coverage of the process.
“That will be history in the making,” Spohn said. “They will able to witness history happening. It will be so beneficial to them. It will make so much more sense to them to see it.”
At the high-school level, though, students are having meaningful faith-based conversations.
“Everything here was abuzz [among the students],” said Bobbie Hannan, chair of the religious studies department at Newman Central Catholic High School in Sterling.
They’re talking about the conclave, of course, with its rituals that include folding the ballots just so, piercing them through the Latin word ‘eligo’ [which means “I elect”], and burning them after each round.
“It’s an important sacred ritual,” Hannan said. “I’m constantly telling them that, as Catholics, we don’t pull this stuff out of the air, that this is rich tradition in the church.”
Students also are talking about the candidates for the papacy and the impact that could have on the church.
“I’ve asked them whether it matters what country he comes from or that he is the best man for the job and the best representation of Christ,” Hannan said.
Students are talking about the admirable decision Benedict made to step down, even amid criticism.
“We’ve talked about why he would do this,” Hannan said. “I’ve told them this man is so humble ... that he looks at his own frailty and decides he can’t go on.”
For all Catholics, in school or long removed from the classroom, the resignation of Benedict and the election of his successor is important business.
“It is our duty as Catholics to follow this,” Hannan said. “This is part of who we are. This is our business.”
Selecting the next pope
Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation Feb. 11. He will step down Feb. 28. His resignation, the first in nearly 600 years, sets in motion a process, marked by secrecy and tradition, to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The laws governing the selection of a new pope after the previous pope resigns are the same as those in force after the previous pope dies – aside from skipping a period of mourning.
The procedure is as follows:
* The Vatican summons a conclave, the secret meeting of cardinals to elect a new pope. The conclave must begin 15 to 20 days after Benedict resigns, so at the earliest March 15.
* Cardinals eligible to vote – those younger than 80 – are sequestered within Vatican City and take an oath of secrecy. There currently are 118 cardinals younger than 80 and eligible to vote, 67 of whom were appointed by Benedict. Four of them will turn 80 before the end of March, so depending on the date of the conclave, they might not be allowed to vote.
* The cardinals cast ballots twice each morning and twice again each afternoon in the Sistine Chapel. A two-thirds majority is required. Benedict in 2007 reverted back to the rule and reversed a decision by Pope John Paul II, who in 1996 had decreed a simple majority could be invoked after 12 days of inconclusive voting. Benedict did so to prevent cardinals from holding out for 12 days, then pushing through a candidate who had only a slim majority.
* The scrutineers burn the ballots – and any notes taken during the vote – after each round. Black smoke that snakes out of the chimney of the chapel means the cardinals have not chosen a new pope. White smoke means the cardinals have chosen a new pope and he has accepted the position. Bells also signal the election of a new pope to avoid confusion over the color of the smoke.
* The senior cardinal-deacon introduces the new pope – with his new name – from the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square with the words "Habemus papam!" which is Latin for "We have a pope!" The new pope then imparts his first blessing.
Source: The Associated Press