Monday, April 18, 2005

Odd Musings on the Next Pope

Now that His Holiness' body has been put in its temporary resting place, I return to blogging. When he died, and was buried, I didn't have any words for it. He had a life one can sum up in a million words or a few dozen. Here are the few: "For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." 2 Timothy 4:6-8 (KJV). Had the Church been run by a hireling, or a routine and ordinary Pope, content to tend the institution and provide a name fot its inertia, I and millions of others should probably not have joined her in these past decades. But fortunately, that was not to be.

The Church was loved and ruled by a man called from obscurity, from nowhere by God's own voice. He was strong, this man, and gentle too. He was brilliant and very simple. He was happy in suffering, generous in triumph. He was so unlike the world that it took your breath away just to see him. This, you said to yourself, must be how grace appears when it transforms the human person. And this was just one life. Just one. It wasn't a movement, or a program. It was just a man, one man, living each day as I must live each day. I will miss him. I knew he had my back, that he refused no suffering or hardship that any man might undergo for following Christ. He was a real leader.

There's lots of speculation about who the next Pope will be. I have my pet theories, others have theirs. I won't share them, because when all's said and done it's kind of silly, like the distressing and impotent conversations lawyers have about what the jury's thinking and doing. I will, however, predict this: I doubt very much we'll get a Pope who can match John Paul II. In fact I wonder if his pontificate wasn't a consolation for the Church, the kind which God sends to encourage spiritual progress while providing the happy strength of memory and hope against the dry times that He knows must come in every life.

I don't think the next Pope will be a corrupt man, bedeviled by sins and uncleanliness. He could, of course, be such a man, and in that case we should soldier on as best we can. But I don't think that will happen. What I do think is that the next pope may well be disappointing to people accustomed to the brilliant and heady fecundity of John Paul's pontificate. The next pope may match John Paul II in one area or another, but not in all of them. He may well suffer by comparison.

The next Pope may lack John Paul's brilliant appreciation of mass communication. He may not be philosophically acute, or even particularly interested in theological issues. He may have character flaws. He may not be gentle. He may not be kind. He may be cold and aloof. Or he may be too warm, too familiar, and a lax disciplinarian. He may be provincial in his outlook, or too fascinated with the "big picture" to be concerned about the mundane details which give that picture a concrete application in the lives of his flock. Perhaps most galling, he may be too vain or too thick-headed to realize just how disappointing he is to so many of us.

It's also true that the late Pope's popularity resulted from that unique and incredibly-powerful confluence of personality and history which marks the life of all great men, for good or ill. For that reason the spectacular value of John Paul II's achievements may be distant, or unfamiliar, to many Catholics in future. History "dawns" on individual lives at particular times, leaving an indelible mark on one's perspective and priorities which may not be easy to read in future days. So those of us in middle age know what the Soviet Empire and its domination of Central Europe threatened for the future of civilization. But that threat has vanished like a bad dream at sunrise; many Catholics, upon whom history dawned on 9/11, or upon whom it will break in future crises, may not be as edified as we by the laurels of older victories.

While there is no reason to expect it, is good reason to contemplate the prospect of a future Pope -- or several Popes -- who will be regarded (perhaps rightly so) as bunglers, non-plussers, and duds. Their mis-steps and disappointing gaps in judgment will provide great comfort and encouragement to those religious cultures whose contemplation of Christ's Church is composed in equal parts of false perfectionism, bitter zeal, and schadenfreude. That culture, as experience shows, is not confined only to self-styled Traditionalists but runs the gamut of all the other worldly and heretical tastes which are irritated by one or another part of the Gospel. They combine to sing an unintended, but entirely unified, chorus that the Catholic Church is not what she claims to be since she enjoys a false glory that rests not on Christ but the shallow and temporary enthusiasm generated by one man's extraordinary showmanship.

They will, of course, be wrong to say so. As they are have been wrong to say it in past centuries when the "death" or "irrelevance" of Catholicism was loudly proclaimed by everyone who thought themselves on the "right" side of history. John Paul II's pontificate did not define the Catholic Church; it was defined by her. Every jot and tittle of John Paul II's career was deeply shaped by the Church's life through all the ages and conditions of history through which she has passed. It is impossible to say that he was a great man who merely happened to employ Catholicism as the metier of his magnificence. His greatness was Catholicism itself, the realization of what the faith intends for the human person. Attempts to isolate that greatness, to reduce it to the dimension of temporal policies and personal preferences are worldly propaganda, for propaganda gains its chief effect, not by forwarding its own cause, but by banishing contrary ideas from popular contemplation.

In our time, the banished idea is the Gospel, and its message that each of us is called to be what John Paul II was to the Church and the world, urbi et orbi. No, most of us aren't called to be popes or powerful men. A hundred years from now no one will remember our names. We can "be not afraid," and testify resolutely and cheerfully to the truth in the face of the "Soviet occupation" of our own culture. And so we will have lived as part of the Church, whose life through all the ages and conditions of human history will continue to inform and shape the lives of saints. The same Church, the same faith, that shaped John Paul II's life also shapes ours. It is not brash to make such comparisons. If millions gathered to hear John Paul II, they were surely as inspired by his message as he was in his own turn inspired to hear it.

That is something worth remembering. Catholicism is greater than any man. It is greater than man himself. Karol Wojtyla did not enter the room of tears only because he was an able man, and chosen by the Church as her Vicar. He entered it because of the anonymous service of millions throughout the centuries and the unspectacular service of dozens of Popes before him. His pontificate was the heir to the legacies of Gregory the Great, Nicholas, the fabulous skein woven by men like Leo XIII, Pius XII, and St. Pius X. It was also heir to the muddled legacy of Leo X, Honorius, and Alexander VI. Each of them, for good or ill, was granted their time, their place, by God. The Church profited from their good works, and survived their mistakes, in ways that no merely-human institution can match.

So the next Pope will enter the room of tears, and don the vestments that ravel a new thread into the skein of Gospel history. The Church will profit from his good deeds, and she will survive his mistakes. No man made the Church. No man may unmake it. May God save and guide the next Pope and his flock. May He grant us all the grace to love, and be loyal, during our short time in the present age and condition of human history. We owe a good deal to the anonymous faithful of prior ages, and even to the mediocre Popes who shepherded many of those faithful. We should be confident that future ages will owe at least as much to us, and to our next Pope. That will be a very great deal, indeed.

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