|Give him the chair!|
The feast is based on the ancient Roman festival Parentalia, (or dies parentales, sc. 13-21 February) which honored deceased relatives and friends with quiet reflection and graveyard visits. On the day after this "novena," families would hold an informal banquet in honor of their dead. We can imagine them setting out an empty chair to commemorate those who used to occupy a place at table, akin to the empty chair that Jewish families leave for the prophet Elijah, when they celebrate the Passover.
In less than a week Peter's chair will be temporarily unoccupied, but the office of Pope does not disappear, nor does it lose a speck of due reverence. Our Lord promised Peter, "The gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it [My Church]" (Mt 16:18). Non praevalebunt ("they will not prevail") is one half of the motto of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican weekly newspaper.
The religion beat of the Washington Post and ABC News compares the popularity of Pope Benedict vs his beatified predecessor, John Paul II. There is a curious note: in the latter days of JPII, the Pope was more popular (among Catholics) than the Church--perhaps the populace was still smarting from the scandals--and our current pontiff's popularity is a few points lower, while the Church's has increased by two points!
Now, if public acclaim were all there is to ecclesial authority (or any other!), then polls such as these would be more than the curiosity that we should consider them to be. People might misread Jesus' question in the Gospel (Mt 16:13-19) as a poll: "Who do people say that I am?" (16: 13) and, soon thereafter, "But who do you say I am?" (16:15)
I would call it a setup...and Peter makes the trey: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
|nil nisi rete|
To this day Peter must be by turns bold and demure, ever prudent, ever pressing; waiting for the right moment to deliver. Difficult tasks and circumstances, like scandals, will inevitably come (cf. Lk 17:1); how we respond to them is our choice.
If it really matters, I believe that history will support our man Benedict. For nearly eight years he kept at it, doing everything that he enjoyed doing (presiding over the Sacred Synaxis, writing, speaking) and everything that we are told he wasn't so fond of (crowd-pleasing, administrating). If he had ministerial preferences, perhaps astute body-language readers and close advisors could glean them, but I surely couldn't. Preferences don't much enter into parenthood, I reckon, be it physical or spiritual.
Benedict, emergent emeritus Bishop of Rome, may doff the white jersey, but he will still have our back. Within his monastic enclave he will be conducting himself as he has done for his entire priesthood: as an "example to the flock," awaiting the revelation of the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:3-4) whom he has served so faithfully.