All of Christendom — and much of the rest of the world — recalls that on February 28, 2013, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI abdicated the See of Peter. The Sede vacante took effect at 8:00 p.m. local time, or 11:00 a.m. here in California.
The previous night (February 27), we sat down with Fr. A for a late supper. Mrs. Q had taken the last few days off from work, and we were beginning to feel some real excitement and nervousness for the future hours and days, and a little bit uncertain about what to expect, and when to expect it.
We had steaks and baked potatoes for dinner. The boys were already in bed, sleeping. It was nearly 10:00 p.m. when we finally sat down to eat. Fr. A said a blessing, and we set to work on our plates. The steaks were great, and Fr. and I took up some discourse on the significance of the moment (as we are wont to do on such evenings).
I don’t think that either of us paid much notice when my wife excused herself from the table, and went upstairs for a little while.
We just kept eating and talking. Without a doubt, the conversation revolved around the next fews days and their unfolding. When would it happen? How would it happen? What would happen? How would everyone react? What would be the lasting images and words that we would remember?
And Benedict himself. We talked about the occasions that we had both gotten an opportunity to see the Holy Father in person. We reflected upon his great contributions to the Church. His years as panzercardinal, when he defended doctrine as prefect of the CDF, his association with John Paul II, and the way that he was much maligned both before and after his accession to the papacy.
We remarked upon the resignation, what it meant, who might succeed him. We both agreed that it was weird to think of the idea of a new pope without having to process the death of the old one. Most of all, we agreed that it was possible to be serene about all the uncertainty because Benedict was a steady helmsman whose own serenity encouraged us to join him in trusting the Holy Spirit.
My wife returned to the table from upstairs. She had changed her clothes, and showered, which seemed a really weird thing to do during dinner. I was still immersed in discussion with Fr. A, but I briefly paused from chewing and pontificating to ask her if everything was okay. She serenely nodded and smiled. All was well. No need to worry. Keep eating and talking. She sat with us as we continued with our repast, but did not touch her plate.
As Fr. and I basked in post-gustatorial satisfaction, attention turned back to Mrs. Q’s unfinished plate. She let us know that it was probably time to receive his blessing and….. head to the hospital. Although it was still nearly a week to the due date, her water had broken, which is why she’d quietly gone upstairs to change and get ready.
Fr. and I exchanged glances that said, “Wow, check out the clueless dudes paying no attention to the pregnant lady!” We were too addled by red meat and conversation to realize what happened, and she hadn’t said anything because she did not want Fr. and me to miss our dinner. How thoughtfully self-sacrificing is that? My wife waited to tell us she was in labor so we could finish our steaks!
Since February 11 I’d become convinced that we’d have an “Interregnum baby”. I kept telling people, “What’s more rare than a child born on February 29? A baby born in the Interregnum!”
Along the way to the hospital, I was calculating the possibilities of reaching 11:00 a.m. before the baby was born. But as the contractions continued to build, it soon became clear that we wouldn’t wait that long. The first exam upon arrival at the hospital revealed that my wife was already 4 centimeters dilated. The baby would arrive long before sunrise. Our first daughter, Lucia Jean, was born in the final hours of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, and not during the interregnum. In the wee hours of the morning, we had God’s newest gift to us in our arms.
I went to mass at 7:00 a.m. at the local parish and found my wife’s doctor (who had delivered Lucy a few hours before, and who is now in formation for the permanent diaconate) serving at mass in the scrubs he’d worn for Lucy’s delivery. Apparently he’d been home, but only briefly.
The good doctor, who had literally used his hands to help bring new life into the world hours before, was now at the altar of Christ to assist the priest saying mass. As he brought Father the gifts, sang the responses and rang the bells, I was struck by the sanctity of his service, and the humility shown by his actions. Here was a modern man, as close to a miracle-worker as the secular world will allow, who could have claimed the fruits of his labors for himself, who could have gone home and gotten an extra hour of sleep. Instead, he made himself present for the truly miraculous as the life-giving work of the Church poured out for the benefit of all.
I returned to the hospital to bring the Eucharist to my wife, and we prayed together and she received the Sacrament. Then as we enjoyed those first few hours with Lucy in our post-partum room, we watched the televised broadcast from Rome — His Holiness leaving the Apostolic Palace, greeting everyone who had assembled to bid farewell, his brief ride to the Vatican helipad, his flight to Castel Gandolfo, and finally, his last appearance to the public as Pope before the Swiss Guard closed the heavy wood-beamed door at the entrance.
An “Interregnum baby” would have been something distinctive, but as the days pass I am evermore grateful that Lucy was born while Benedict still reigned as Pope. While an interregnum is a very interesting and historic moment, the seat is vacant and so — to an extent — are our hearts. We Catholics do well to love our Holy Father, even when his human faults are obviously apparent. No matter whether we think he is great or just so-so, if our universal pastor is missing, then also is our rudder.
It is only once the stormy moments pass over, when the Barque is again safe and firmly captained, that we can freely look upon times that seemed perilous with the clear vision of the Spirit: that is, whether it seems so at the moment, we are always safely in the embrace of our Eternal Father.
A very happy second birthday to our lovely daughter, Lucy, and a prayer of thanksgiving for the Pope Emeritus, may he live many years to come.