This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.
At St. Francis of Assisi Church on Friday, the hours passed as they always do.
A handful of parishioners gathered at noon for weekday Mass. They whispered their responses, lifted their prayers and sipped Communion wine. As the service ended, they rose and spilled out into the parking lot, chatting about their weekend plans and making plans for lunch.
For these local Catholics, everything was normal, even if the Catholic Church as a whole might still be reeling from the news that Pope Benedict XVI, who was elected in 2005, planned to resign his position, the first pope to resign since Gregory XII did it in 1415. Benedict told Catholics Wednesday at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome that he was leaving “in full liberty for the good of the church.”
Though that’s not to say that for the people of St. Francis, the only Catholic parish in Caldwell County, the resignation of a living Pope didn’t come as a great surprise.
“Nobody ever retires,” said Sister Joan Pearson, the parish nun. “They die.”
Pearson said it had never even occurred to her that a pope might not stay in the job for life.
Others raised questions about the 85-year-old Bishop of Rome. Parishioner Steve Smith said it had been rumored for years that Benedict has a pacemaker — news the Vatican confirmed Feb. 12, the day after the Pope announced his plan to step down.
“I think that we don’t, perhaps, know all of the health ramifications,” Smith said.
Despite the surprise and unknowns, churchgoers were calm. Big shakeups at the Vatican level don’t cause much of a ripple at the parish level, some explained.
“There’s such continuity with the Apostolic succession over the years, you don’t see it,” said Deborah Rummell, who works in the parish office. “I don’t believe you’ll see it at the local level.”
Evyatar Marienberg, a University of North Carolina professor who studies contemporary Catholicism, said that likely will be true for other Catholics across the country, as well.
“The local impact is very minimal, if at all,” Marienberg said. “The impact on Catholic life is very minimal.”
Father Julio Dominguez, the parish priest, agreed. Doctrine comes to the parish from the bishop at the Charlotte Diocese, not from Rome.
The Catholics at St. Francis are not floundering, and they’re not distraught. Their day-to-day operations won’t really change.
Instead, their attitude was one of quiet respect for Benedict, and a pervasive sense of peace.
“This is a holy man who knows he can’t fulfill the role of being pope to all the Catholics in the world,” Pearson said. “The humility that must have taken.” She shook her head.
Smith brought up the figurative keys of heaven, believed to be passed from pope to pope since the days of Saint Peter. It’s a story based on the words of Jesus in the book of Matthew: “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Those words are what keep Smith from worrying about the future of the church and the papacy.
“It’s this beautiful assurance of truth,” he said. “People have
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different ideas of what the truth is, but that’s what these keys mean to us. We don’t have to worry.”
Toward the end of Friday Mass, the people of St. Francis gently recited in Latin. Most of the words are unintelligible to those who haven’t studied Latin, but one recognizable phrase floats up from the congregation: Dona nobis pacem. Let there be peace.
There may not be peace on earth. There may not even be peace in the Vatican.
But there is peace in this parish.