Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Being Pope

Yahoo photos of  the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. Imagine
doing your job in such awesome earthly beauty. 
I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other, and I’m not Catholic by faith like my daughter Elissa, who finds such comfort in its rituals and beliefs,  but I never knew a Pope could just resign.

I thought being Pope was a calling sent from on high, the representation of God on earth, a connection that only death can sunder. The Pope was the shepherd and the rock of the Catholic church, from the time of St. Peter.  He couldn't  just resign.  I thought Pope’s channeled God’s word to his earthly flock. He couldn't just give up.

But being Pope, I guess, is just a job.

With Pope Benedict's resignation, the conclave of some 115 cardinals (up to age 80) from around the world will meet in the breathtakingly beautiful Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo at the height of the Renaissance in Western Europe. What lucky fellows (no women among them, yet).   I felt such awe when I saw it for the first time. Was I closer to God? I'm not sure. I was as close to a Pope as I ever was or would be, and joined thousands in the square for an Easter mass.

Being Pope is not just about giving a Mass; however; it's not an easy job. The Vatican, as beautiful as it is,   is full of intrigue and politics, both in story and history.  Some popes themselves have been more secular than spiritual, their claims to spiritual authority and infallibility notwithstanding.  They have succumbed to life's temptations, have sat in denial of temporal tragedies, even encouraged them or conspired to cover them up. Such human transgressions have tainted the Holy See, from  Medieval  times and the Renaissance, through World Wars, up to the present.  The papacy is not immune to Machiavellian quests for power and the human emotions of jealousy, greed, pride.  .

There's nothing holy about the job, in other words.  As Pope, you have your supporters and your opponents, those you trust and those who betray you, like Pope Benedict’s butler.  A Judas in his midst.  Nor are  ordinary priests down the bureaucratic line immune to human emotions. One priest recently burnt a picture of Benedict during a Mass, apparently in anger about the resignation. During a Mass!
Pope Benedict XVI had had enough of it.   He seemed to be a smart and kind man, but he didn’t have the brilliance or stamina of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, the travelling Pope who went all over the world and increased the Church’s flock, which today is more diverse than ever before.  John Paul drew crowds in Mexico, East Asia, Africa, wherever he went, like a Rock star, filling football stadiums. John Paul spoke many languages, embodied papal authority, loved one and all, even his enemies. Can't say this about Benedict. He did okay but he wasn't as charismatic as John Paul.

Church in Istanbul where Pope John XXIII
preached for 10 years, while the Vatican's
 ambassador to Turkey and Greece.
From here he saved
Jewish people fleeing the Nazi holocaust,
a little-known story of courage and compassion. .

Nor did Benedict have the down-to-earth warmth and humility of John XXIII, my favorite pope, who while in Turkey helped thousands of Jewish people escape to Israel, and throughout his time as Pope gave comfort to the poor and marginalized, taught peace and inclusion, convened the Second Vatican Council to support human dignity and justice..  I was thrilled to attend John XXIII’s church in Istanbul on Christmas Eve 2009 with PCV friends Jud and Jason..  We felt  John XXIII's spirit and were deeply moved.  The people’s Pope, the Pope of peace.

Pope Benedict XVI , in contrast, seemed more introvert than extrovert, more intellectual than accessible apostle.  Of course, he had to deal with 21st-century conditions and issues, in the glare of 21st-century technology and social media, and with painful realities such as wayward priests, pedophilia and sexual abuse.  Talk about betrayal.  These priests betrayed hundreds of young altar boys whose parents couldn't believe that priests would do such things. The anger runs deep.

Benedict himself  admitted  that the job was "difficult" and it sometimes seemed that "the Lord was sleeping."  Mother Teresa felt this way at times while serving the poorest of the poor in India.  "Where is God?"

For Benedict, the job was more than he wanted to handle. I  think Benedict longed simply to be a preacher and teacher of Catholic doctrine to true believers, not the CEO of a complex bureaucracy with multiple secular responsibilities, and scheming underlings. His butler's betrayal might have been the final straw.

A younger, tech-savvy, well-traveled cardinal from Africa or Latin America would be just the ticket for the job in these times.  Not that I think those more traditional Cardinals, serving as the search committee, will select such a pope, not yet.  The pope will look like them, like the majority of them.  Boards tend to clone themselves.  They'll need someone tough, however. They'll need a devoted professional who can work 16 hour days, 24/7, with the endurance of a long-distance runner. They'll need someone politically astute, too, even cunning.

It's just a job, after all. .  .
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