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Benedictine nun offers insights into papal transition

Nancy Bauer is a canon, or church lawyer, a talented photojournalist and, from 2005 to 2011, was prioress of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minn.

"The big initiative of Pope Benedict has been evangelization, the new evangelization and the year of faith, so I can imagine a new pope would move those forward because that’s kind of a worldwide thing and it has to do with faith and it has to do with Christ and bringing the message of Christ."
CC/Flickr/Catholic Church (England and Wales)
Sister Nancy Bauer
Sister Nancy Bauer

Nancy Bauer is a Benedictine nun, a canon, or church lawyer, a talented photojournalist and, from 2005 to 2011, was prioress of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minn. After two decades spent working as a photographer, reporter and eventually editor of Diocese of St. Cloud’s weekly newspaper, she served as vice chancellor for the diocese and as a visiting instructor in canon law at St. John’s University School of Theology.

That résumé means Bauer has expertise in the laws that govern the selection of a new pope, which the conclave of cardinals will begin voting on tomorrow at the Vatican. And as the former leader of a religious community, she has some insight into the transition Pope Emeritus Benedict is making.

Bauer recently took time to answer questions for MinnPost. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

MinnPost: So the most obvious is, what happens now? And then the next one is how might the impact of this transition be felt in Minnesota?

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Nancy Bauer: The College of Cardinals has the role of overseeing whatever needs to be done and setting up the conclave and all of that. But they are not able to overturn decisions that Pope Benedict had made. They are not able to change church law. They don’t deal with those major issues. They wait. If something needs to be dealt with, they would wait for the next pope. If there are questions about something that should be dealt with, then it would go to the College of Cardinals and they would talk about it and decide what to do. 

Within that, a smaller group is chosen to oversee some of the details, and if that group has questions, they would take it to the College of Cardinals for advice and input. All of that is spelled out in this Universi Dominci Gregis, which is available in English on the Vatican website.

The whole procedure for the election is discussed in there. When Pope John Paul II [updated it for current times], he provided for the possibility that if after 12 or 13 days, the cardinals could not come up with a two-thirds majority to select a new pope, he provided for possibility of a ballot that required only an absolute majority, one over half.

Pope Benedict XVI changed that back. So any pope that was elected would require a two-thirds majority. What they would do is after those 13 days, just take the top two candidates and put them on the ballot. But one of them has to get the two-thirds majority.

The new pope can appoint new people, usually at these Vatican congregations with the cardinals who are prefixed. Because the pope, like a president, can’t get all his appointment stuff in one day. He may just say, “Please stay in place until I get through this process.” It’s sort of like when a president starts a second term, we see some of his Cabinet members move on and he appoints new ones.

MP: I understand there might be disadvantage to an incoming pope starting his papacy with a resigned pope who is still alive.

NB: I would say it depends totally on the personality of the resigned pope. It’s not that we don’t have precedence for this in the church, and in society in general, even in our own religious communities. Our bishop is 75 and has submitted his resignation last May. [It] has not yet been received and a new bishop hasn’t been appointed.

In a diocese, when a bishop retires because of age or health, he often stays on in the diocese; a new bishop comes in. How that relationship works depends a lot on the personality of the two bishops. I suppose some outgoing bishop, one who is going out of office could try to interfere, intervene or influence.

On the other hand, the old one can be very helpful to the new one to learn kind of the character of the diocese, to learn some things about the priests and the parishes. It can helpful and it can be intrusive. I can’t imagine Pope Benedict being intrusive. From what I’ve read and what I seem to understand of him, I think he just wants a life of prayer. I think he really does. I think he’s tired and he wants to move on.

It can be hard. I recently finished my term as prioress of our own monastery. We have a number of former prioresses in the community and it can be a very emotional time. Not because you’re clinging to be in that office, but your relationships with people change. You may have started some things that were pretty close to your heart and a new one comes in and decides that’s not the direction to go or that it’s not a priority and so it can very hard actually.

So I think when I look at Pope Benedict, I think there will be relief initially. There’s always relief that the burden and responsibility is no longer on your shoulders. But your interest in what happens to the church doesn’t go away. And all of those things he has worked hard for, I’m sure [he] would like to see progress.

MP: How will the transition be felt locally?

NB: I think individual Catholics have different degrees of interest or relationship to what happens at the Vatican. A lot of Catholics go to church, they pray, they lead their lives. Of course they’re curious to know who the pope is and if the pope says something interesting. But what the pope is doing is not part of their daily preoccupation.

For people who work in the church, for bishops and pastors, there’s a deeper interest. For women religious, even though it does not appear Pope Benedict initiated the investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) or what was called the Apostolic Visitation of Religious Institutes — certainly a new pope could express his thoughts on whether they are going pursue that or how vigorously they’ll pursue it, or whether they are going to quietly let it drop.

Most of the time when a new bishop comes in or a new pope, they don’t overturn what the last person did out of respect for that person. But there are some things that just sort of aren’t tended to right away, you know what I mean? Things that quietly fade away. On the other hand, you could have one who picks up on some of those things and moves them forward very quickly and very vigorously.

The big initiative of Pope Benedict has been evangelization, the new evangelization and the year of faith, so I can imagine a new pope would move those forward because that’s kind of a worldwide thing and it has to do with faith and it has to do with Christ and bringing the message of Christ. Those are perennially big priority items.

Where it affects us locally, not in the first year or so, but as bishops retire over a period of time … Pope John Paul II was in office for over twenty-some years, so he obviously selected a lot of current bishops.

I think we’ve seen changes in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in the last 20 years, in the kinds of things they do and pursue, and whether directly or indirectly, that’s kind of a manifestation of the pope’s priorities and where he wants the church to go.

MP: What about Benedict’s papacy is personally significant to you?

NB: I would say two things were kind of special to me. One was the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized a saint. That was significant to me personally. I think that it’s a great honor for our Native Americans. And in Minnesota, our community had worked with Native Americans for over 120 years.

The other thing was naming Hildegard of Bingen a Doctor of the Church. That was very significant to me. She was only the fourth woman to be named a Doctor of the Church, and she is the first Benedictine women.

A Doctor of the Church, doctor in this case is not a medical doctor but writing and teaching. So the Doctors of the Church would be the more significant and influential writers, like Augustine, Jerome, Equinas, all of these very well-known people who contribute to the theology of the doctrine, the spirituality of the church, through their intellectual achievements and their writing.

Hildegard of Bingen wrote and addressed so many different topics about not just spirituality, but music, medicine — just a very interesting take on life. She first founded her monastery and had a very significant influence in the Middle Ages in Germany. And that she was a Benedictine is significant for me because the others are Teresa of Avila, who is Carmelite. Therese of Lisieux, Carmelite,  and Catherine of Sienna who is affiliated with the Dominicans, I believe.

If you ever go to Germany, go to Bingen. There’s a little [thing] called a mouse tower. It’s a tower. Sometimes when the river is high, it’s in the middle of the river. But the story of the mouse tower is, there was a bishop in some nearby diocese who was very, very mean to poor people — I don’t know if this is a legend or true, and I don’t know what century — he was chased by mice into Bingen and he took refuge in the tower and the mice came in and ate him. You’ve got to love a tower like that.

One of her monasteries is across the river from Bingen, and it’s all surrounded by these beautiful vineyards. It’s just glorious, anyway.