Orderly succession will determine Mormon leader - East Valley Tribune: News

Orderly succession will determine Mormon leader

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Posted: Saturday, February 2, 2008 12:18 pm | Updated: 11:56 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Valley Mormons will gather today in stake centers or in front of TVs at homes for satellite and cable TV coverage of the 11 a.m. funeral services of their beloved president and prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley.

Read Lawn Griffiths' Blog 'Beyond Belief'

Expect the 21,000-seat church Conference Center and overflow areas in Salt Lake City to be filled with mourners. Numerous speakers - including his closest comrades of leadership - will take turns eulogizing Hinckley, who at 97 lived longer than his 14 predecessors going to back to founder Joseph Smith.

Four presidents of the church have died during my tenure at the Tribune - Spencer Kimball in 1985, Ezra Taft Benson in 1994, Howard Hunter in 1995 and now Hinckley, who died Sunday night.

Kimball, who lived to be 90, had grown up in Thatcher. Benson had been U.S. secretary of agriculture and, among other things, indirectly made headlines here because his grandson, longtime Arizona Republic editorial cartoonist Steve Benson, had so publicly turned his back on the church and its teachings.

I covered Benson's funeral in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City nearly 14 years ago for the Tribune. Hinckley was among the speakers. And Hunter had a mere nine months as president before his death.

It's a church in which the elders are truly elderly and still going strong.

Mormons are famous for forgoing habits that might impair their health or trim their life expectancy - avoiding smoking, alcohol, caffeine and risky behaviors. (One epidemiology study found Mormons live eight to 11 years longer than those in a white, non-Mormon study group). That certainly helps give the church long-lived leaders.

Men continually serve the church in role after role and some find themselves called to the intricate hierarchy of the church - ranging from the First Quorum of the Seventy to the Eighth Quorum of the Seventy and thousands of roles beyond that. They do daunting missions and assignments, often balancing them with secular employment, which may have to be put on hold.

Through that matrix of church service emerge those men who will go on to serve at the highest levels in Salt Lake City.

In the end, survival and discipline determine the new prophet, although Mormons are quick to admonish us for suggesting that the transition of leadership is that systematic, that automatic.

Some faiths' highest leaders are largely unknown to the denominations' followers, even if they have titles like bishop, moderator or president. Not so with Mormons, whose prophet is regarded as a living intermediary to God.

In my coverage of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, events like the passing of their prophet remind us anew that Mormons earnestly believe a prophet is not to be confused with a denominational functionary or some elected leader. Instead, they say, the church's prophet was placed there by God by sacred design.

Several callers said that while we correctly laid out the procedures that members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles traditionally follow in selecting a new prophet and president, our stories made it sound so mechanical, so methodical, so much like the way dozens of organizations pick their leaders.

"There is a human side to it," one woman insisted.

"It's not like moving up, like getting a promotion," she said. "I don't think anyone WANTS to be the prophet."

The caller said the church presidency is "not something that anyone aspires to be, but they hope they live their lives so they could be" the prophet.

In theory, the Quorum of the Twelve could reach down into its church and tap any male in good standing as the next leader. But since Brigham Young, in 1847, succeeded Smith amid the turmoil of Smith's violent death in Carthage, Ill., in 1844, the apostles have named the man who has been an apostle the longest. So, Thomas Monson, 80, who was ordained an apostle on Oct. 10, 1963, has clear "seniority" over Boyd Packer, 83, who was ordained in 1970. A decision will come in the days ahead.

In all cases, it is a long wait. It would be more than 44 years for Monson. Joseph Fielding Smith, the 10th president, waited 60 years. He was ordained an apostle in 1910 at age 33 and became president in 1970 at age 93. Succeeding presidents were apostles for 49, 31, 30, 42 and 35 years respectively till the day came. Talk about having time to prepare.

That Tribune caller said all procedural talk should be set aside because the man called to be prophet is simply the one God wanted in that position to lead the church. "You have to work hard" to reach that position, she acknowledged, "but you have to work hard even if you are a bishop."

Contrast that with the Roman Catholic Church and the grand intrigue and speculation when the pope's health begins to fail and he dies. The focus is on a spate of cardinals, with various histories, credentials and strategic church roles. Mere longevity is not necessarily a criterion. And those in the College of Cardinals past age 80 are exempt from voting for a new pope. Technically, the Cardinals could elect any baptized male as pope, providing that he would then be ordained a priest and a bishop before assuming the papacy. However, they have chosen from among the existing cardinals under 80 - some 115 being eligible when Pope Benedict XVI was chosen in 2005.

All that contrasts with the storied way that Buddhists comb villages far and wide for the one boy born most precisely around the time the last Dalai Lama died and presumably reincarnated in that lad. Boy candidates are shown possessions of the previous lama, mixed with other things, to see if they choose the right ones, proving one boy is, in fact, the next lama.

Interestingly, since the Mormon church began in 1830, there have been 15 church presidents, 13 Catholic popes and 37 American presidents, counting Grover Cleveland's two split terms.

Don Evans, spokesman for the approximately 350,000 Mormons in Arizona, said he takes comfort that his church keeps politics out of its method of prophet succession. "There is no controversy, and there is no jockeying for position. It is a wonderful thing," he said.

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