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This page last updated 3 May 2005  

 Special report for Anglicans Online
24 April 2005

Dispatch from St Peter's Basilica
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

Early in the morning, under a light-blue Roman sky, the Episcopal Church's ecumenical officer, Bishop Christopher Epting, and I gathered with the rest of the Anglicans at the Grand Hotel Palazzo Carpegna on via Aurelia. A Vatican coach and a carabineri escort took us through the deserted, blocked-off streets of the Eternal City through the gates of the Vatican into St. Peter's Basilica. Liveried guards saluted us, halberds at the ready, as we processed through the starkly empty church into the sunlit square.

No matter what the occasion, I always feel well-dressed in what the English call "Convocation robes," that is, red chimere (though I prefer a black chimere), rochet, and scarf. Led by our Archbishop, Rowan Williams and his wife Jane, the Anglicans made a good figure amongst all the ecclesiastical finery. Besides Bishop Epting and myself, the Archbishop of West Indies, Drexel Gomez, Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester, David Beetge, Bishop of the Hindveld, South Africa, the Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, Bishop John Flack, and my counterparts in Europe, Bishops Geoffrey Rowell and David Hamid of the Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe, plus Canon Kenneth Kearon, Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, and Canons Gregory Cameron, Jonathan Jennings, Andrew Norman, and Jonathan Goodall. We were also grateful that the Most Rev. Joris Vercammen, Archbishop of Utrecht of the Union of Old Catholic Churches, was seated with us. We were placed together at the Pope's right, a place of honor, in between the Roman and Orthodox Bishops, which also afforded a good view of the vast congregation. Right on time, the procession entered, singing the Litany of the Saints. The throngs sang along, the organ and choral music resounding from inside Michelangelo's dome amplified to us outside. And so commenced the reign of Benedict XVI.

Vested in a gorgeous golden vestments and miter, the new Pope strode in, looking relaxed and smiling. He waved at the crowd several times, grinning delightedly, and the sea of people roared back.

We sang the Gregorian chant settings of the Liber usualis for Eastertide. The crowd sang lustily the well-known graceful melodies. Interestingly, the choir would interject polyphonic phrases in between the crowd's monophonic lines. Unfortunately, the Vatican tradition of mediocre choral singing continues into the new Pope's ministry...

The readings were Acts 4:8-12, read in English; Ps. 116 (Anglican numbering), sung in Latin; I Pet. 5: 1-5, 10-11, read in Italian; and John 21: 15-19, chanted both in Latin Western style and in Greek, Byzantine-style. Then came the imposition of the pallium, shaped in an Eastern style, and the Fisherman's Ring. The sea of people roared their approval as each was placed on Benedict.

The sermon was in Italian, read by Benedict with a fine accent. Its construction was sound, the images clear, and many messages sent. Every time Benedict mentioned his predecessor, the crowd broke into loud applause and cheers, which the Pope took in stride. There was also, rather amusingly, lengthy applause when he said that he felt no need to present a program of governance. True to form, the sermon had evangelistic appeals which I found very engaging: "Only when we meet the living God in Christ does life truly begin. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. . . Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary."

Benedict also used the image of the 153 fish in John 21: "yet the net was not torn." He went on to deplore that indeed the net is now torn, and implored Jesus to fulfill his promise that we would be one. The only major lacuna, I thought, was that there was no mention of Islam, though there was a significant Muslim delegation.

The rest of the liturgy was thrilling mostly because of its size, with a gigantic crowd, not to mention the masses of Roman and other clergy as well as dignitaries (the Queen of Spain, only monarch to have a place of honor by tradition, looked wonderful in her mantilla). The Prayers of the People were said in Chinese and Arabic, as well as European languages. Ample opportunity was given for people to take communion, though it went very rapidly. Communion in one kind is always quicker than in both... One point of difference with John Paul's funeral, I have learned, is that the crowd received specific instructions today that the Eucharist was for Catholics only.

All in all, it was a splendid liturgy, under increasingly bright skies and warm sun. The guests had arrived with plenty of time to spare, and so much schmoozing went on. There were joyful reunions and warm introductions. We were in a good mood as we started, none more perhaps than the group of German bishops sitting behind us. ("Fier hundred zwei-und-achtzig jahren," one commented to me, shaking his head at the 482 years since the last Teutonic pope.) Benedict XVI himself gave it a light tone, with his enthusiasm, copious smiles, and gestures to the crowd. They replied by chanting "Be-ne-det-to, Be-ne-det-to!" The only truly jarring moment came immediately after the final blessing. As the new Pope climbed into his Popemobile to go around the square blessings the masses, the organ opened with J. S. Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D minor." That music, which sadly has become associated with horror films, seemed to make some sardonic comment. But this is Italy and people here do not watch "The Phantom of the Opera."

Bishop Epting and I had learned of the election of Joseph Ratzinger as successor to John Paul II as we attended the meeting of the Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations in Louisville, Kentucky, as guests of the Diocese of Kentucky. We already knew that the Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, had appointed the two of us to represent him and the Episcopal Church for the institution of the new Pope. I cut short my trip and hurried home to retrieve my vestments and make arrangements, as did Bishop Epting. At lunch before I left, the great scholar of ecumenism the Rev. Dr. J. Robert Wright leaned over and said in his avuncular way, "and what gift are you giving Benedict XVI?" My colleague and I looked at each other, mouths agape: "gift?" It was soon decided that an appropriate gift from the Episcopal Church to the new Pope would be a hand-bound leather edition of the German-English Selections of the Book of Common Prayer, translated and published by the Convocation of American Churches In Europe. My trusty cell phone soon had me in contact with Christina Caughlan, head of our bilingual Prayer Book publications, at St. James Church in Florence, where all four bilingual Books were printed and bound. She had a calligrapher inscribe the greetings to Benedict XVI written by our Standing Commission in the flyleaf. Christina sent it to our parish in Rome, St. Paul's-Within-the-Walls, which delivered it to our hotel right next door to the church.

Bishop Epting and I signed the presentation page. We'll able to present it to the Pope personally at our audience with him Monday morning.

After lunch at the Anglican Centre, we returned to our hotel for a brief respite before heading out again, this time to All Saints Anglican Church, for a Eucharist presided by Archbishop Rowan. The Archbishop had specifically asked us to participate. We listened to Cantuar's sermon. Archbishop Rowan commented on the text from John 14, on the "many dwelling-places in the Father's house." He pointed out that the line could be just as easily translated "many way-stations." He spoke of the unending journey we make into the grace of God, echoing Origen. Both individuals and churches make this journey, as Christ clears the way ahead and walks with us. As we can trust Christ, we can know that we have the strength to continue forward. He ended the homily with a series of passionate exhortations to trust the Lord. And then finally, we Anglicans received communion too.

As I listened, I thought how extraordinary our own spiritual head is. One cannot but envy his many gifts, not least of which is that resonant expressive voice, which serves so well to communicate his ideas. As we go to meet Benedict XVI tomorrow, I feel well-represented. I think the new Pope will meet his match.

I have never met Joseph Ratzinger. My priests who do know him personally speak of a gentle, unassuming man, like Rowan Williams in that respect, quite different from the way he is perceived in the media. He came across that way today, in fact. I remember my mentor, Reginald Fuller, describe him as he was when they were together decades ago: "the liberal of Vatican II." The new Pope may be that proverbial conservative: "a liberal who got mugged." If so, perhaps there is another side of him that will come through. Certainly no man was better placed to pick up where John Paul left off. Unlike a cardinal from outside the Curia, Benedict XVI does not have to learn how to master the Vatican dicastries. He could conceivably make some significant changes; re-start the ecumenical movement, for instance.

The man whose installation we witnessed looked genuinely humbled by what was happening to him. He looked sometimes as if he could not believe it. Certainly he is no longer what he used to be, or at least, he has the opportunity and the power to do something new.

It was a signal honor for me to represent our Presiding Bishop, the Episcopal Church, and particularly the great people and clergy of the Convocation of American Churches In Europe. A day to remember...and who knows about tomorrow?

The beginning of Joseph Ratzinger's ascension to the papacy began almost fifty years ago with John XXIII surprising everyone by "opening the windows" of the Church. Now we will look for a new aggiornamento. Veni Creator Spiritus!

Part 2 of Bishop Whalon's report from Rome: The audience with the new Pope.

Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at

THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.