Q&A: When your boss is the pope, Denver priest reflects
By Nissa LaPoint
Msgr. J. Anthony McDaid, pastor of Risen Christ Church in Denver, served as an official for the Congregation for Clergy at the Vatican for 17 years. The following is the Denver Catholic Register’s interview with Msgr. McDaid about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the conclave and his reflections on the future of the Church.
Q: What was your position in the Congregation for the Clergy and what did your work entail?
A: The Congregation for the Clergy deals with most aspects of the life and ministry of diocesan clergy (priests and deacons) including clerical discipline and in ensuring that the necessary support structures, which enable them to carry out their ministry, are in place. This means the congregation has a wide remit which also covers parishes, their pastoral and administrative operation as well as questions regarding closures/mergers, the operations of presbyteral councils and any other associations of clergy, and disputes between bishops and priests that might not have been resolved on the local level. I was department head at the congregation, which is the No. 4 position in the structure under the cardinal prefect, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza. I spent 17 years at the congregation.
Q: What was it like working for Pope Benedict XVI at the Holy See?
A: To assist in the ministry of Peter, in any respect, is a tremendous privilege. Under the guidance of the successor of Peter, one becomes very aware of the vastness of our Church. We are 1.2 billion people, of many races and cultures and what all of that means, who find their unity in faith in Jesus Christ.
Q: What kind of man was the pontiff? What kind of legacy will he leave?
A: Pope Emeritus Benedict is the quintessential Bavarian Catholic gentleman who personally exhibits the characteristics of a reserved academic monk. He has a brilliant mind and a great grasp of Catholicism. He, as a good teacher and professor, excels in speaking and writing. His output in these areas is well known and he has an unseen Internet following who also benefit from his teaching. As to his legacy, it is too soon to see it in its entirety. His main legacy is that he has enhanced our belief both in word and in deed. He had an undeserved image, particularly in the Western press, which has been disproved because it never really existed. It was an ideological construct that “knew not the man.” He is a shy, retiring man of God. He is now doing what he has longed to do—praying in peace for all of us.
Q: Could you share your experience of the last conclave? What was the atmosphere at the Vatican?
A: The atmosphere at the Vatican is always one of nervous anticipation. It is a bureaucracy after all. A pope can change things, a pope can move people, so there is a self-interested anxiety present as well as the knowledge that, no matter whom is elected, the Church will continue under its eternal head, Christ. An anxious waiting would characterize the atmosphere during the conclave.
The last conclave was, from my perspective, one in which most of my colleagues and I could see only one candidate, Cardinal (Joseph) Ratzinger. However, he was not popular in all circles. He was the dean of the College of Cardinals and, therefore, had the privilege of burying Pope John Paul II and preaching at his funeral as well as giving the “state of the union” address to the cardinals before the conclave. The “power” blocks hardly had time to organize themselves and suddenly, unexpectedly, the conclave was over and we had a new pope.
I remember being in my office and hearing someone running down the corridor—no one ever runs in Roman Congregations—so I stuck my head out to see what was happening. I heard that there was white smoke. We all quickly repaired to St. Peter’s Square. It was evening and twilight, so there was smoke, but whether white or black, one could not tell clearly. No one expected a conclusive ballot at the evening session, so all were unprepared—including the bell-ringers at St. Peter’s. As this inconclusive smoke had been a problem before, it had been decided that this time the bells would be rung as well so that all would know for sure we had a new pontiff. But, Rome being Rome, the bell-ringers, relying on custom, felt they were free to take a little break, so we had to wait until they scurried back to their posts before we knew for sure that “Habemus papam!” (“We have a pope!”).
Q: What might you say about the next pope and the future of the Church?
A: It is a futile exercise to try to predict who is to be pope. We should never forget that the “Spirit blows where he wills,” and that, at the end of the day, he runs the conclave. One smiles to hear the secular media and their pundits speaking of the need for a “manager,” a “pastoral” shepherd, a more “modern” pope, and so on. The pope must be Catholic and he must “confirm the brethren in their faith.” That is the task that is God-given and the resume of a CEO is not what fits. God will fit the shoulders to the burden. It is his Church. John Paul II reminded us in Denver during World Youth Day that “the Church is Christ’s,” and so it will remain and has done so for two millennia. The future, well, it will always have its challenges given our human weakness, but it will always have its divine head to wash us clean, if we repent, though our sins “be as scarlet.” The eternal voice calling us to “fear not” needs to take root in the hearts of believers for if God is with us, what matter who is against us? As to the future, why, it is in God!