I grew up Catholic. Our parish was of the unmistakably post-Vatican II variety, from the shiny, happy guitar music to the felt banners to the nuns in pantsuits. My parents had grown up Catholic; my mother went to Catholic school through the 8th grade. But I had never heard of the Pope.
Never, that is, until he died. It was Pope Paul VI, and I was 11 years old. What I remember is sitting in front of the T.V. at my father's house, watching as the vast crowds in Vatican Square waited to see whether white or black smoke would issue forth, whether the Cardinals had or had not elected a new Pope. Eventually they elected the man who would be Pope John Paul I and serve for a mere 33 days before his death, the shortest papacy in history. He was, of course, succeeded by Pope John Paul II, who served just over 26 years, only five years shy of the longest papacy in history, and who was the most visible Pope of the modern age. I myself saw Pope John Paul II in San Francisco in 1987. I saw him speed by on Geary Boulevard in the Pope-Mobile, and I participated in the mass he celebrated at Candlestick Park.
Today, in a virtually unprecedented announcement, Pope Benedict XXI has declared his intention to abdicate at the end of the month. I wonder what it means to me and to the world? How important can the Pope be today if even I, a cradle Catholic, managed to reach the age of 11 without any adult thinking it was important or necessary for me to understand his role in the church, in the world, in my life?
There was a time in history when the Pope was the most powerful man in the western world. In a post- Constantine culture, where Christianity was the state-sanctioned religion to the ends of what had been the Roman empire; where adherence to Christianity was enforced by Crusaders and Inquisitors; and where monarchs, crowned with a sense of divine right, were accountable only to God, the Pope, the representative of God's authority on earth, reigned supreme.
It's easy to look back at that period of history and call it oppressive or naïve or quaint. But if I'm honest, if I can pause for a moment and step outside of my 21st century, democratic, individualistic worldview, is it possible for me to see the attraction of a world where authority had its place and everybody knew it? There's a child in me who wants that sort of assurance -- the assurance that God is in heaven and all is right with the world. The assurance of an earthly Father who can speak authoritatively with the voice of our heavenly Father.
History, however, clouds my child-like fantasy. Popes are people, flawed, sinful. The question of the institution of the papacy or of the Catholic hierarchy in general is one for another day. I have worshipped as a Protestant (Lutheran, to be specific) and as a Catholic, and, while I am now, again, a practicing Catholic, I have a deep ambivalence about the way authority is exercised in the church. My liberal or Protestant friends and family might be more comfortable if I disavowed the hierarchy altogether. My more conservative Catholic loved ones might want me more single-mindedly to embrace the teachings of the bishops. I find I can do neither, to no one's satisfaction, including my own.
Still, I think of myself as a Catholic. Catholicism is my culture, my spiritual home, liturgically and organically. My personal spirituality is incarnational, ritualistic, sacramental. I have found that I cannot make it be otherwise. I know that there are churches that intend to embrace the roots of Catholicism sans the hierarchy. Part of me wishes I could join them. What I find -- what I found when I spent time in the Lutheran church -- is that, for reasons I don't know how to express or even understand, I cannot. In some way, for me, being a Catholic still means that I am under the authority of the Pope and the bishops, even though I am a 21st century, liberal-leaning, American woman, a feminist of sorts, and a Christian who'd like to see us all commune from the same table.
So, for me, the Pope somehow matters. He is still a figure with profound moral authority in the wider world, an authority both re-established and corrupted by John Paul II; there is no denying or evading the pall that the mishandling of the child sex abuse scandal has cast over the entire college of bishops.
But here, in this moment, is a new hope. When Pope John XXIII was elected in 1958 at the age of 77, he was not expected to serve for long. He was a placeholder Pope of whom no one expected much. Yet it was he who convened the Second Vatican Council, ushering in both transformation in the church and the reactionary era which has followed and in which we are now living.
God, in my experience, revels in the unexpected. God likes surprises. It is easy, from our human perspective, to look at the hierarchy today and call it reactionary (see previous paragraph), calcified, hopeless. None of that, however, reflects the Spirit of God the Father of Jesus. That God, the God who this church and its flawed leaders are meant both to serve and to embody, is a God who raises up shepherds and teenage girls and fishermen and women possessed by demons and carpenters to lead the rest of us.
This is an hour for prayer. God can raise up a man to this office who will embrace truth, whatever the cost. I could speculate, but neither I nor any of us know what that would look like. Who could foresee a Messiah hanging on a Roman cross, laid in a stone tomb? No one. Neither can we foresee what restoration God can bring to fruition in this moment. Pray, friends, that God's will be done.