April 23, 2005
Most United Methodists couldn’t name their highest elected leader, nor could Lutherans or Episcopalians. Unlike spirituality, religion is a human invention to organize like-minded believers to worship God in a prescribed way.
And it tends to form in mere national, and even regional, camps tended by otherwise obscure leaders. Only when hierarchy and authority becomes paramount does the person at the top wield name recognition and eminently larger-than-life qualities.
For about a month now, it has seemed that Catholicism is the planet’s religion. Nothing compares to the Roman Catholic Church — in reach, in history, in bravado, in procreating itself in perpetuity.
Cynics say Catholics give an unhealthy reverence to their pope, a man who still has to rise out of obscurity through pastoral work and survival to be chosen the successor of St. Peter. This time around, the College of Cardinals took no chances. They ensured the status quo and continued orthodoxy. They picked the next guy in line. It was like moving up a vice president.
"The church is in safe hands" was the mantra Tuesday. Just as Michelangelo’s Adam was touching the finger of God on the ceiling above them, the church gave pontifical life to Joseph Ratzinger. Two hundred sixty-five popes and counting.
The fast conclave was a godsend to Roman tourists on a weak U.S. dollar. The Sistine Chapel tours reopened faster than expected.
Now a 78-year-old German, tempered as a boy by the Nazi nightmare, gets the rarest of adventures in his 1.1 billion-member church.
Tribes have long prized the wisdom of the elders. "Transitional pope" has been an easy label foisted on the new pontiff. Now begins a new health watch, a search for any sign of a medical weakness. His age opens speculation about the man who’ll follow. How many of this current set of cardinals get another crack at picking a pope, or at being picked pope?
It easily conjures thoughts of Mormon president Gordon B. Hinckley, who leads a similarly male-led, hierarchical, conservative worldwide church and who ascended to the top leadership post at the age of 84 in 1994 and is still going at 94.
I’ve roamed the awesome halls and corridors of St. Peter’s Basilica and gotten goosebumps beholding the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and realizing the history of that room, from its art to church politics. In a month of traveling Europe one summer, I was amazed at the countless Catholic churches, each an incredible feat of architecture, splendor and imagination. In just a few blocks, another one, and I just had to go inside each to crane my neck, behold the naves and listen to the echoes.
Yet Europe somehow has been labeled wayward and secular by the Catholic Church for widespread abandonment of the 2,000-year-old faith. The continent that gave us the Reformation and exported a plethora of beliefs to the rest of the globe nonetheless has continued to provide all the popes.
Seemingly every Catholicrelated organization in the world hit the "send" button on their computers Tuesday after Ratzinger’s selection was announced. The cardinals may have pulled off one of the fastest conclaves on record, but online reactions were quicker. The avalanche hit my computer with a vengeance.
One diatribe titled "Benny XVI" said the new pope was posing as a conservative but is "actually a flaming modernist" who perpetuates the "we-allworship-the-same-god error."
Anti-abortion groups were prolific. Human Life International, for example, "enthusiastically offers the full extent of its talents and resources to our new pope in his ministry," its message said. John Chuchman, a tireless Scottsdale Catholic advocate for change, offered this: "Under siege, the boys in red decided to circle the wagon. As retired Bishop (Rembert) Weakland said, ‘Things have to get worse before they get better.’ At least we won’t have to wait 26 years for a change."
The Chicago headquarters of Call to Action, which is the largest U.S. "progressive Catholic reform group," issued what would appear to be a cry in the wilderness, for now, regarding women’s ordination and married priests. "Our hope is that he will allow us to lighten his burden by calling upon the talents and gifts of all women and men in the church to spread the Gospel to a world." Call to Action said the new pontiff is "not just the leader of those who agree with him," but a leader of all, a pope who "must bring all voices to the table."
The organization Future-Church warned of the "worldwide priest shortage which, if nothing is done, will bring significant change to the church, regardless of who is pope." The editor of Tikkun, a progressive Jewish magazine, called Ratzinger’s selection "bad news for the world and for the Jews," then offered a litany of reasons.
I imagine Tuesday’s news from Rome steeled many battalions of evangelical Christians and Pentecostals around the world to step up efforts to woo and minister to those Catholics who feel a disconnect with the historic church or who are easily attracted to their less complicated brand of Christianity. For billions, too, around the world, it felt like Nov. 3, the day after the U.S. presidential election, and more of the same. Obviously, it’s bad or good, depending on your politics and theology.
"Not in my lifetime" is a dreaded term for some who yearn for change in the Catholic church. The naming of a new pope suggests many Catholics will not live long enough to see the reforms they pine for.
The term "the faithful" seems to so aptly fit Catholics. Their faith seems inbred and inherent — not chosen, not easily disengaged from the faith of their fathers. In a world that scorns anachronism and the mountain of historic follies and failures, the Catholic Church plods onward in spite of itself. The so-called Church Universal, with its unmatched multiculturalism, somehow holds together despite being muscle-bound by dogma and legalism. What would Jesus say about all the pomp and regalia?
Recently a woman raised in a Catholic family told me how her father criticized her for going to a non- Catholic church, although he quit going to Mass a long time ago. "You were raised Catholic," he reminded her. "At least I am attending church," she countered.
However long this Benedictine era lasts, it will give comfort to those comfortable with this new pope. For those who believe the Holy Spirit can, in fact, change hearts and minds and ecclesiastical directions, there is hope as well. But it may take miracles.
It is all so, well . . . Catholic. If it weren’t so showy, dramatic and massive, it would all seem peculiar and tribal.