In a place that values tradition so highly, a couple of non-traditional things happened today in St. Peter’s Basilica.  As everyone knows by now, Pope Benedict has announced his retirement, the first time a pope has done so in six centuries.  So, for the first time since St. Peter’s Basilica was really the “home church” of the Pope (remember that the popes were based out of the Lateran until the return from Avignon), the Pope–in a way known to be so by all–said his final public Mass as Pope in St. Peter’s.

And, just to add to the oddity a bit: the Pope normally doesn’t say Mass in St. Peter’s on Ash Wednesday.  Traditionally, popes begin the Roman tradition of the station churches by presiding at Ash Wednesday Mass at Santa Sabina on the Aventine hill.  I honestly do not know why Santa Sabina is the first station (if someone who reads this knows, please comment!).  Santa Sabina, however, boasts one of the earliest extant portrayals of the crucifixion upon its doors. As such, it is a particularly appropriate place for the pilgrims of the station liturgy to begin their march toward Good Friday.  (For more on the station liturgy, or to join the men of the Pontifical North American College for these liturgies in English, click here.  The Diocese of Rome also encourages pilgrims to attend regularly scheduled evening Masses in these parishes on these days in Italian.)

Santa Sabina, though, could not have held nearly as many pilgrims as St. Peter’s, and since this was Pope Benedict’s last public Mass, it was moved to the bigger venue.  Rocco Palmo posted about the Holy Father’s last journey away from the altar at St. Peter’s, including a wonderful video of the end of Mass and the recessional.  I was unable to tear myself away from this video (I was also unable to embed it, so please watch it on the link to Palmo).  Mostly, what drew me in was the enthusiasm and love poured out for the Pope by the faithful who had gathered. The video offers a sense of the Church gathered–bishops and laity, priests and sisters–to pray together and to say thank you and goodbye to Benedict.

But for me, it was also about the power of the place and the power of the day, and even more so about the strange coincidence of the two.  We have gotten so used to St. Peter’s Basilica as the symbol of papal power and authority, that we forget what it rests upon: the bones of St. Peter himself.  Of course, one can be as skeptical as one would like about whether the early Christians and their successors (especially Constantine) were successful, but their intention was clear.  St. Peter’s was built as a memorial to the apostle whose faith wavered as he walked on water, who didn’t quite get that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world, who thrice denied Christ, but who nonetheless gave his life to the preaching of the Gospel and who died offering an enduring witness to the Lord who is crucified and risen.

At its best, the papacy is not about the exercise of power per se; it is about protecting the truth of the faith and the unity of the Church.  It is about witnessing to the truth of the Gospel, about following (and leading others who would follow) the One who was in our midst as one who served.  The papacy is about serving the Church in such a way that the Church nourishes the faith of the People of God, and forms us all to be of better service to God and our neighbors. Hence, one of the ancient titles of the pope is “Servant of the Servants of God.”

There was something immensely powerful for me about seeing the successor of Peter standing over the bones of Peter and leading the faithful in a celebration of Ash Wednesday.  Ash Wednesday is about reminding us of our mortality (“Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”) and our need for Christ.  It begins our Lenten journey toward the Cross of Christ, and beyond it to the hope that is Easter.  It was so strangely fitting that Benedict’s last public Mass was not the triumphal joy of Easter, but the solemn, penitential commitment of Ash Wednesday.  Ash Wednesday in St. Peter’s was strange, but Peter failed, too, and needed to repent.  Even popes receive ashes.  All of us, come Ash Wednesday, seek to remember our limits, our sinfulness, our brokenness.  We take up fasting, almsgiving, prayer.  We humble ourselves before God and we place our hope in God’s mercy. Benedict has led the way more profoundly than popes usually do this year.

The Vatican Hill, now with St. Peter’s Basilica upon it, has come a long way since Peter and 900 others were crucified in Nero’s circus for the emperor’s pleasure.  The papacy has come a long way too.  And yet, there is something oddly consistent in Peter’s faithfulness and Benedict’s.  Each has witnessed to the followers of Christ a profound trust in God’s ability to sustain the Church through whatever comes.  And the life of the Church goes on: Lent has come; Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter will follow.  Popes will come and go.  Like the bishops, priests, and faithful, most will try their best, and we will all trust God to do the rest.  And the gates of hell shall not prevail against us.

But I wonder if a pope will ever say Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter’s again.