Editor’s Note: What follows is an e-mail interview conducted with Father Aaron Johanneck, a priest of the New Ulm Diocese and a Wabasso native who has been in Rome since 2007 and has been seeing the news regarding the pope take place firsthand.
Why are you in Rome? When did you get there and how long are you there?
I am in Rome because Archbishop Nienstedt, who was the Bishop of New Ulm and my bishop at the time, asked me to do my theological studies in Rome.
All men who are studying for the priesthood must study theology for four years before they are ordained. There are several seminaries in the United States where this can be done, but some bishops like to send at least some of their seminarians to study in Rome.
I live at the Pontifical North American College (NAC), which is a seminary primarily for men studying for the priesthood from the United States. My actual courses are held at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, which is about a 15-20 minute walk from the NAC. I arrived in Rome at the end of August in 2007. I will finish my studies and return to the Diocese of New Ulm at the end of June of this year.
What was it like in Rome when the pope announced he was going to retire? How about for you?
Pope Benedict’s announcement that he was going to resign caught everyone by surprise.
No one was expecting it. I didn’t believe it when I first heard about it. I thought that probably everyone had misunderstood something that the Holy Father had said. After the initial shock most everyone here in Rome was very supportive. We all recognize that Benedict thought and prayed hard about this decision. This is God’s will for Benedict and for the Church at this time, but we will certainly miss him.
What have things been like since he announced his retirement, including the “lasts” of his time as pope?
It has been bittersweet since Benedict announced his resignation. We are all sad to see Benedict step down, but it is also exciting to see who the next pope will be. It is also exciting to be so close to the process.
Most, if not all, of the cardinals have arrived in Rome now. The American cardinals are staying with us at the NAC until the conclave to elect the pope begins.
Pope Benedict’s “last” events were very beautiful.
Two days after the announcement was made I had the great privilege of distributing ashes at the Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, which was celebrated by the Holy Father. This was a very beautiful occasion.
Page 2 of 4 - At the end of the Mass, the entire basilica broke out into a long applause.
The last Sunday before his resignation Benedict prayed the Angelus with the people gathered in St. Peter’s Square as he has done nearly every Sunday.
At the end of his reflection on the day’s Gospel reading of the Transfiguration he talked about how this reading reminds us of the primacy of prayer.
He then talked about how at this time God is calling him to “ascend the mountain of prayer” and continue to serve the Church, but in a different way that is better suited to his age and abilities.
On Wednesday (Feb. 27) I went to the last Wednesday general audience. Benedict gave a very beautiful and simple address. It was a very personal talk, which was touching because he is very humble and rarely talks about himself. He encouraged all of us to throw ourselves into the arms of our loving Father in heaven and to place all of our trust in God because He is with us and takes care of us even in times of struggle.
He said he wished that everyone would know and experience the great love God has for them and that all would experience the joy of being Christian.
You can find his whole address at: www.news.va /en/news/pope-final-general-audience-full-text.
On Thursday (Feb. 28) we watched Pope Benedict XVI leave the Vatican by helicopter for the last time as pope. Our seminary is located on a hill next to the Vatican and we have an excellent view of it from our roof. Probably close to 100 of us priests and seminarians gathered on our roof-top terrace to watch the helicopter fly by. A few were waving large American, Vatican and Bavarian (the region of Germany Benedict is from originally) flags. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was up there with us as well. It was very moving to watch him fly by for the last time.
What is the process to select a new pope and how are you going to be following it?
Right now the cardinals are gathering in Rome. Nearly all of them have arrived. They will have some congregations in the coming days to discuss the situation of the Church.
They will also decide soon when the Conclave will begin. The conclave is the name of the gathering of the cardinals in which they elect the new pope.
When the conclave begins the cardinals will enter the Sistine Chapel in a solemn procession and be “locked in.” Until a new pope is elected the cardinals will not be able to go outside of the Sistine Chapel and the rooms surrounding it.
Page 3 of 4 - The only other place they are able to go is the Casa Santa Marta, which is a sort of hotel inside the Vatican where they will stay during the conclave. The cardinals can have no contact with the outside world and are sworn to secrecy about the proceedings.
Each day the cardinals will vote twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon until a new pope is elected.
After each vote the ballots are burned in a stove placed in the Sistine Chapel.
The smoke can be seen from St. Peter’s Square.
If no pope is elected the smoke will be black. Once a new pope has been elected, the smoke will be white and the city and world will go crazy. Eventually, the new pope will be introduced from the front, center balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.
The whole process is very prayerful. The cardinals will constantly pray to the Holy Spirit. He’s the one who will choose the next pope.
I’m not yet sure how I will follow it. Unfortunately, I can’t just wait every day in St. Peter’s Square until the white smoke comes.
However, once that happens, the bells will ring throughout the city and I should have plenty of time to get to the square to see the new pope introduced.
What was the mood like the first Sunday without the pope?
It certainly felt different. After our Sunday brunch here at the NAC many of us usually go down to see the pope and pray the Angelus with him in St. Peter’s Square. We almost went down there by habit, but of course, we quickly realized that there would be no pope there to pray with this time.
But, again, we are all very supportive of Benedict’s decision and looking forward to meeting our next pope.
What would you like to see in the new pope? Do you have any thoughts on who it might be?
I don’t really like to enter into speculation about this. There are many qualified candidates. Again, ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who will guide the cardinals to choose the right man.
I think Cardinal Dolan from New York said it best in an interview when he said that what we want in a pope is someone who will lead us to Jesus Christ. The pope is Christ’s vicar on earth. Ultimately, Christ is the Shepherd of His Church.
Do you think the next pope is going to be in place by Easter? What happens if there isn’t one (who offers the Easter Mass, etc)?
Page 4 of 4 - Even though we don’t know exactly when the conclave will begin, everyone seems to think we will have a new pope before Easter.
How does it feel to be so close to this historic moment?
It’s quite a privilege to be in Rome at this time and so close to the action. I’m very excited to see how this will all unfold. If there is anything else you would like to add, please feel free to do so.
Please pray for the cardinals that they will elect the man the Lord desires to be the next pope. The Church is in God’s hands and He will take care of her.