Thursday, March 14, 2013

“We have a papa …”

A couple of weeks ago, in “Has the papacy become ‘just a job’?” I lumped concerns that emeritus Pope Benedict’s resignation had changed the nature of the papacy in with other bits of “silliness inflicted on us by the incessant noisemakers well described as ‘the chattering classes’”. This, I think, goes to show that I can miss the point just as anyone else can.

The basics, I think, are still valid. People who don’t buy into Catholic theology of the papacy, especially the Pope as vicarius Christi, can be found inside the Church as well as outside; you can’t be disillusioned if you don’t have an illusion to begin with. For those of us who do believe it — and to be in communion with the Holy See, you must — what does Benedict’s resignation really change? “The ‘cult of the strong leader’ may suffice for those who hang on to late nineteenth/early twentieth century speculative anthropology.  However, it’s bad history and bad theology, not to mention a total misread of Joe Catholic in the pews.”

That’s the response of the mind. But the heart often discerns truths the mind doesn’t wish to face, and can tell the difference between explaining and explaining away.

Robert Moynihan wrote of an encounter he had with a cardinal before the conclave, a man very troubled in his heart. Said the cardinal, “I love [Benedict], but this should never have happened. He never should have left his office. It is like a man and a woman, a husband and wife, a mother and father in relation to their children. What do they say? They say, ‘until death do us part!’ They stay together always.” And the ineffable Fr. John Zuhlsdorf confessed that he’d been (among other things) angry over the resignation.

I missed it totally. The word “pope” comes from the old Greek papa, “father”. Many people around the world, who know Benedict only though his books and the media, still felt abandoned by their Papa.


If anything, this phenomenon speaks to the Catholic vision of the role of priests as spiritual fathers to their community. If you simply must engage in amateur anthropology, then don’t think of H. G. Wells’ “Old Man” — the chief who comes to power through strength and fear — but rather of tribal or village elders, respected for the sagacity that comes from age and experience rather than for their skill at arms.

[I write this at 1:30 pm CDT on Wednesday, March 13, just having learned that white smoke has issued from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel. I’ll finish this up while I wait for the traditional words: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus Papam!”]

For most of the Church’s history, priests didn’t move from church to church as a series of temporary postings or station changes. Even today, temporary assignments are more a product of the shortage of priests which has generally plagued the Church in America for most of our history and not a preferred state of things. With bishops, the history has been more fluid, as human ambition has caused competition for preferred sees and for the ultimate prize. In the early Church, though, bishops were selected from the diocese in which they lived by the people and priests of their communities … precisely because they were to be fathers to their communities.

To say transference is to risk indulging in psychobabble. But while Catholics have never been blinded to the human frailties and weaknesses of their pastors, a good parish priest often develops a quasi-familial bond with the people of his parish; he becomes beloved as a father figure … with all the rewards and risks that that entails.

But for the Pope ….

There’s no sane or intelligent denying that the role of the Bishop of Rome has expanded precisely as the Church has, and has gained many trappings one could never find on the early Bishops of Rome even after the Edict of Milan in 313. In fact, it wasn’t until after the seventh century, as the Papal Estates began to provide the See of Peter with wealth and the absence of the Emperors allowed the Popes to become temporal powers, that the Bishop of Rome became as remote a figure to the people of his own diocese as he was to the rest of the world. This is not to deny the Petrine function or authority, but to point out that popes weren't able to to develop that quasi-familial bond for many centuries ... until just recently.

In this respect, the real game-changer was the modern media, which brings the Pope into every house that has a television set or a computer. Both the John Pauls saw this and brought their extraordinary gifts to recreate the office of the Pope as spiritual father to the world. This comes with a limitation, of course: the media has the ability to manipulate the image of the Pope in an unfriendly manner, to rewrite his statements and homilies as suits their agendas. And it creates a new permanent requirement of all who come after them: they must first and foremost be “hopeful holy men who can smile”.

Is Francis, the first Jesuit and Latin American pope, such a man? God help me, I hope so. For while we need a good administrator and a solidly orthodox thinker in terms of doctrine, even more than those we need a man of vibrant, glowing goodness and hope.

True “pope worship” is an absurdity and blasphemy no Catholic is capable of, especially if she’s pious. We are mortal. No technological innovation will change that. And as such, our lives are constantly punctuated with moments of loss, as people depart our lives one way or another: like other mortals, popes come and go.

Still, we felt betrayed and abandoned by Benedict precisely because the media has reinforced the spiritual fatherhood that was always implicit in the role. Put differently, if the papacy was “just another job”, if Benedict had merely been equivalent to the CEO of a gigantic MNC, we wouldn’t have grieved so much. Nor would the election of Papa Bergoglio be such a blessing or disaster — yes, there have already been tears of joy and howls of outrage, and his reign hasn’t formally begun yet!

Transference complete. Habemus Papam.