Several prominent Oklahoma Catholics said they are monitoring events in Rome with keen interest as a papal resignation — the first in 600 years — occurs on Thursday and cardinals from around the world gather to elect a new pope.
Francis Russell Hittinger, Ph.D., of Tulsa, said events unfolding at the Vatican are “doubly historic” because it has been centuries since a pontiff resigned as Pope Benedict XVI is set to do on Thursday, resulting in the pending election of a new pope although the former pope is alive. Pope Benedict XVI was elected to the papacy in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II and papal elections in modern times have been held on the event of a pope's death.
“A lot of attention will be on the conclave because of this added novelty,” Hittinger, the William K. Warren Professor Catholic Studies and research professor of law at the University of Tulsa, said, referring to Pope Benedict XVI's resignation.
And mixed in with the anticipation of a papal transition are news reports from Italian media outlets about an internal report into alleged unsavory deeds by clergy and others in the Vatican.
The Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, said he has been disappointed that some European news outlets have chosen to hone in on what he called unsubstantiated rumors of the internal report.
“Nobody knows what it contains so it is disappointing that they would use something like that to distract attention from what otherwise should be a very important moment for the Catholic faithful and for all people who recognize that the pope is a leader of global stature, not just for Catholics but for all people,” Coakley said.
Coakley said he is focusing on the papal transition and not the negative rumors. He said he is encouraging Catholics to pray for Pope Benedict XVI, the cardinals that will elect a new pontiff and the Catholic Church as a whole.
“We've weathered many storms and this is unfortunate but I don't think it's as serious a challenge as many of the media outlets, particularly in Europe and particularly in Italy, have made it out to be. I think the conclave will continue, a new pope will be elected and the Catholic Church will move forward under new leadership,” Coakley said.
Meanwhile, both Hittinger and Coakley said they expected the cardinals to elect a new pope by Easter, which is March 31.
Hittinger said just when the cardinal conclave — a meeting where the papal election will be conducted in secret — will actually start has yet to be determined. However, he said he expects the cardinals will let the public know the timing early next week. Hittinger, who is Catholic, is familiar with many of the areas that the cardinals will frequent in the coming days because he makes frequent trips to the Vatican due to his appointments by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to two of the three major pontifical academies. He also received a Medal of Science from Pope Benedict XVI.
Hittinger said he has not ever seen such a huge amount of media attention focused on the papal succession, even compared to the papal transition after Pope John Paul II's death. He said he attributes this to the historic resignation but also because people seem to be very curious about papal elections.
He said the onslaught of media attention has run the gamut from negative news about rumored Vatican scandals to more benign stories about what color shoes Pope Benedict will wear after he resigns. Wearing red shoes is a papal tradition but the Vatican recently announced that Pope Benedict would cease wearing crimson footwear when he becomes “Pope Emeritus.”
Papacy has evolved
The Rev. Bill Pruett, pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Oklahoma City, said Pope Benedict's historic resignation is a sign that as the world has changed, so has the papacy and all that it entails.
“The idea is if God chooses a person for this office then God must remove them from office through death. However, the modern world is very complicated and the whole idea of the papacy has shifted,” Pruett said.
Pruett said as Catholicism has spread throughout the world so the pontiff has traveled around the globe to speak to issues pertinent not only to the Catholic faithful but to the world in general.
“He speaks frequently on the world stage for oppressed people who aren't even Christian. He has become the shepherd for humanity,” the priest said.
Pruett said the pope also must guarantee the authenticity of Christian teachings so that core Gospel values are not compromised.
He said Pope Benedict obviously knew that a new canon law that allows for a pope's resignation was put in place under his predecessor Pope John Paul II. When Pope Gregory XII resigned in 1415, it threw the Catholic Church into disarray because there was no precedence for that.
Pruett said he, like many Catholics around the world, was surprised by Benedict's resignation, but he understood it because papal responsibilities have increased over time.
“It's a fascinating story that the whole world is talking about,” he said.