Friday, March 1, 2013

Knowing When and Doing So

When you read this, we will be without a pope. To some this will make little difference. To others it may be disconcerting, but there is the anticipated mystery of a new pope. To everyone, it should be amazing that one man’s decision changes the way we think about the Church. No longer can we assume that popes remain in that position until death, the odd abdication cases in the last couple of millennia non-withstanding. Not only is it possible, it’s happening.

Years ago, the pope was never sick until he was dead. The Vatican simply didn’t let people know if the pope was ill, because of the perceived impact that might have on the faithful. All of that changed with JP II, who was very publicly ill and for a very long time, with several hospital stays that were well covered by the press. The fact of human illness, suffering, and the debilitations of age were there for all to see. Many thought it was a foolish attempt to soldier on. He saw it as part of his role to remain faithful and be a model for all those who suffer similarly. And those close to him insisted that his mind remained very sharp even as his body declined, which I’m sure made the suffering all the more acute. At the end of his papacy, the whole world knew that even popes suffer and decline. We became ready for the notion that perhaps popes need not serve to the very end of their lives.

Then, Pope Benedict’s decision came quietly, almost as a matter of course. We are startled by the decision, but we are not dismayed. The move is very unexpected and rare, but it gradually seems to be a courageous thing to do and it makes sense. Who knows how the precedent will play out in the future (disaffected people marching on St. Peter’s square carrying signs of “Resign Now”?). All we can say is that at this time and in these circumstances, it’s okay. Significantly, he made the announcement at a normal meeting with the cardinals of the Vatican. No PR blitz, no major press conference, no fuss. It’s only the listeners who are blown away. (If you watch the video clip of his announcement, watch the eye movements of the bishop seated on the right side of the frame. It’s clear that he didn’t know a thing about it.) If only the proclamation of the Gospel had that kind of effect on people.

People now worry about having two popes and the protocol mess that could ensue. (Will the cardinal announcing the results of the new election from the balcony have to say “Habemus secundus papa”?) All the speculation is just silly, of course. The opposite to a protocol mess is more likely to be true. It takes one to know one, and BXVI will undoubtedly be as unseen and quiet as possible, supporting with sympathy, encouragement, and prayer the person who next wears the white.  It’s the same as when you see someone (first-time mother, newbie in business, new student in class, etc.) who is suddenly placed in a position that you remember quite well. Intuitively, you know what will help and what will hurt. It’s my guess that a former pope has developed habits of generosity and wisdom that will easily come to the fore. Would that we would all do the same.

So all of this is a good thing, and Benedict XVI will have taught us with his own actions, just as JP II did with his, what it means to have integrity and faith. Saints down the ages show us that holiness manifests itself in absolutely unique ways. No people are fully alike, and the saints are really not alike. That’s holiness, or wholeness, in a well lived life. Integrity and faith may not lead us to a balcony, but they will lead to our real and best selves.