February 22, 2013

Benedictine monk attends pope’s last public liturgy

By Sean Gallagher

Benedictine Father Paul Nord, a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, was a witness to history as he participated in the Ash Wednesday Mass on Feb. 13 in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

It was the last scheduled public liturgy celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI before he retires from leading the universal Church on Feb. 28. (Related: More coverage of the papal transition)

Father Paul, who has lived in Rome since 2008 as a graduate student at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, distributed ashes and holy Communion during the Mass.

In an e-mail interview with The Criterion, Father Paul reflected on his participation in the historic liturgy.

Benedictine monks and Dominican friars ordinarily assist at the pope’s Ash Wednesday Mass because it is traditionally celebrated at the Dominican Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome, which is adjacent to Sant’ Anselmo, a Benedictine monastery where monks from around the world come to live while studying in the city.

The Mass was moved to St. Peter’s after the pope made his announcement because that church can hold more worshippers than Santa Sabina.

Father Paul didn’t know that Pope Benedict had announced his resignation until late in the day on Feb. 11, learning about it on the Internet social media website Facebook.

That evening, a papal master of ceremony called Sant’ Anselmo to tell the community that the Ash Wednesday Mass had been moved to St. Peter’s.

“The historic nature of the day was clearly felt by all of us,” Father Paul said.

He had attended several papal liturgies during his years in Rome, but felt from the start that this one was different.

“Often, there is a certain boisterousness in the crowd when the pope processes by, but this time there was a certain sacred somberness,” said Father Paul of the opening penitential procession at the Ash Wednesday Mass. “Part of it was because it was Ash Wednesday, and part, I think, was a certain sadness that Pope Benedict would be [retiring from] the papal ministry.”

The quiet solemnity shown by the congregation at the start of the liturgy gave way to prolonged applause for the retiring pontiff near the end of the Mass.

“As the applause grew, there was a sense in the crowd that we were not going to stop applauding in the normal way, without someone telling us to stop,” Father Paul said. “After a couple minutes of sustained applause, the cardinals realized the tribute that the assembly was making, so they removed their miters in tribute to the pope. This only caused the applause to grow louder still.

“So the pope finally intervened [by saying], ‘Thank you. Let us return to prayer.’ That caused some hardy laughter from us priests who were behind the main altar because we know that the pope is very attentive to sacred, prayerful liturgy. So we obeyed and stopped applauding.”

When Pope Benedict was elected in 2005, Father Paul was still a junior monk at Saint Meinrad in temporary vows.

“I remember watching the announcement in the monastery with my confreres,” he said. “It was certainly an honor that he chose the name Benedict, in recognition of the role that St. Benedict and Benedictine monks played in the development of European culture and Christianity.”

In the nearly eight years since that time, Father Paul has professed solemn vows, been ordained a priest and been sent to Rome to study Scripture in preparation to teach New Testament at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad.

“It really has been an amazing journey,” Father Paul said. “Studying in Rome, you see the Church from a very different perspective, a worldwide perspective. My classmates at the Pontifical Biblical Institute come from … practically every country with a significant Catholic population.”

He hopes to be in St. Peter’s Square in the coming weeks when a new pope is introduced to the world.

“It is rare to have the opportunity to witness history like this,” Father Paul said. “The last five popes were all participants at the Second Vatican Council, but the new pope will not have that experience. Thus, it will be a real generational transition.”

In the meantime, Father Paul said that he will pray regularly for Pope Benedict and the College of Cardinals.

“The cardinals have a sacred responsibility to choose wisely and prayerfully, to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” Father Paul said. “We all have a sacred responsibility to sustain the pope and the cardinals with our prayers during this important time. We petition heaven to give us a good and holy pastor to wisely guide the universal Church in the years to come.” †

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