In a turnout befitting a pope—or a cardinal—more than a thousand well-wishers were on hand Feb. 26 at All Saints Church and McGhee Tyson Airport to see Cardinal Justin Rigali as he departed for Rome, where he will join the College of Cardinals in a conclave to elect the next pope.
Cardinal Rigali presided at a morning prayer service at All Saints that was attended by about 1,000 Knoxville Catholic High School students, faculty and Diocese of Knoxville parishioners, where he asked the faithful for their prayers as the papal transition begins.
“I’m very grateful to all of you, dear friends, who have come together on this very important occasion for two reasons: we’ve all assembled now in order, first of all, to pray for the pope. We pray for our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, who within hours will complete his mission as our Holy Father. But we’re also here to gather together to pray to God through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to help the cardinals in their role in electing the new pope,” Cardinal Rigali said.
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The cardinal said that despite the fact the papal electors are sequestered during the conclave, unable to communicate or have any access outside the Vatican, the electors felt the presence and support of the world’s faithful as they selected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
“The whole Church is involved in this very important work of asking the Holy Spirit to indicate who it is he wants to be the successor to Benedict XVI, so I want you to realize just how important your participation is and how important your presence is this morning,” he said.
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Bishop Richard F. Stika, noting that the president of the United States serves four or maybe eight years but the pope serves for the rest of his life, said serving as pontiff is a monumental role.
“One moment the man is going to be asked if he accepts election. He’s a bishop of a diocese for the most part. And the next moment, if he says yes, then he’s a head of state; he’s the head of an institution of over a billion people. Talk about a shock. So that’s why the gift of prayer is so important to him as he tries to lead an institution that’s everywhere in every culture, in every language that’s spoken. So he needs prayers,” Bishop Stika said.
Following the prayer service, Cardinal Rigali was met at McGhee Tyson Airport by nearly 200 supporters from across the diocese, who greeted him with banners, cheers and prayers as he boarded a plane for Rome.
He stopped to greet many of the children and adults lining the McGhee Tyson concourse to see him depart, and as he made his way through the airport security checkpoint, a number of faithful broke out in applause for Cardinal Rigali and spontaneously began saying the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be to the delight of Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Stika.
“I think this is a spiritual journey. This is not just someone important leaving the airport. Our mission as the people of God is to pray for Cardinal Rigali. He needs our prayers, not just for a safe trip, but for the mission ahead,” said Blanca Primm, who took part in the Feb. 26 events and said prayers for the cardinal in the airport concourse. “We are a spiritual family and he is part of our family and he is going to fulfill a very important mission, so we must pray for him. We felt that the Holy Spirit prompted us to pray for him as an act of love.”
In addition to the parishioners and KCHS students and faculty, the prayer service and airport departure were attended by local and national news media that are covering the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of his successor.
As a papal elector with the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Rigali will join some 116 other cardinals in a papal conclave in the days following Pope Benedict’s resignation. Cardinal Rigali and other cardinals are scheduled to meet with Pope Benedict on Feb. 28 at the Vatican, just hours before the pope’s official resignation takes effect at 8 p.m. that day.
In homilies Sunday at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and at All Saints on Tuesday, Cardinal Rigali asked the faithful for their prayers for Pope Benedict, for him and all the cardinals whose important job it is to prayerfully select the next pope.
It will be Cardinal Rigali’s second papal conclave. He participated in the 2005 election of Joseph Alois Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Rigali, who is in residence in Knoxville, is a former archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and is archbishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.