As I’m writing this, white smoke has risen from the Sistine Chapel and the bells of St. Peter’s are ringing. There is a new pope in the Roman Catholic Church. Now, a bit of disclosure here. I am not a Roman Catholic nor do I lean in that direction. But I see nothing inherently wrong in the Catholic church and simply see them as another expression of the body of Christ that encompasses many different “flavors” of Christians all over the world.
From that reference, though, my wife and I were kinda watching the “Pope Watch” that was going on in the media. Now, we were not really watching for the pope like others were but we were watching those who were watching for the pope and I’ll have to say what I saw and heard is rather surreal.
One thing that needs to be kept in mind in all this is that the Pope is just a man leading the Roman Catholic church. Jesus is the true head. This sentiment is echoed by Catholic brothers and sisters. This is actually a prayer from one of my friends, David Ozarb, where he actually expresses this. He says
May the cardinals electors have the wisdom to choose someone who can follow Benedict’s unique lesson of humility. Someone who will remember the difference between the office and the man who holds it. We Catholics believe that Christ instituted this office, but the power that Christ granted is invested in the Chair of Saint Peter. It is not the personal possession of the man who occupies that chair at any given moment. He is but a humble servant of the Church. I pray that the cardinals choose one from amongst themselves who can be that humble servant.
May the next pope, once elected, remember that while he holds the keys given to Christ by Peter (as we Catholics again believe), those keys belong to the Church and are entrusted to him by the Church. Benedict’s humble act of returning the keys to the Church is a reminder that their power is held by the Church as the Body of Christ and exercised by Peter’s successor on the Church’s behalf. I pray that the next pope remembers that while he holds Peter’s place–and only for a short time–he is still but one part of the Body, and that no one takes Christ’s place as the Head.
As important as the Pope is to the Catholic Church, I wonder if there is too much of a media spectacle and general frenzy going on where even some Catholics, not all, are forgetting who the true head of the church is. With all that was being said and covered within the media, this simple truth seems to have gotten lost and, I fear, Christians aren’t helping matters.
There are two things that bother me in this whole spectacle, one of which it seems that is contributed to by some Catholics. What went on in the Sistine Chapel was not a democratic process as we in the West know it. As much as there were votes being cast by the Conclave of Cardinals, it is not a contest for power or prestige or popularity. What was going on inside the chapel is 115 men who are committed to listening to the movement of the Holy Spirit and answering what they hear with the name of a fellow cardinal to put forward as Pope. This was communal discernment where, instead of selecting a “winner”, they were looking for a consensus of the men gathered which, prayerfully, they submit as the selection by the Holy Spirit. The conjecturing and predicting and politicking about who seems to be the “favored” one and who’s chances are fading seemed irreverent in the light of this solemn process. This is an important time, as mentioned above, and it is a time that is not subject to the whims of man and the impatience of a world used to instant gratification and the 24-hour news cycle. The Holy Spirit will move as it will move when it will move.
The mass media outlets played right along, though, with all the predicting and odds-making of who would be the next pope. While for many Catholics who were waiting in St. Peter’s square it was a time of reflection, fasting, and prayer, there were those who, at least from the outside looking in, seemed to be watching things more like a Grand Prix race or sporting event where each puff of smoke from the chimney was met with gasps as if a goal were missed on the soccer field. And all this accompanied by the breathless commentators in the news “It’s black smoke. The conclave is still divided. When will this suspense end? Stay tuned. Film at 11″. Perhaps, again, it is my non-Catholic stance but it would seem to me that something so important would be met with more reverence. By participating in the spectacle, Christians were simply feeding this media frenzy, giving plenty of screen footage of people acting either elated or disappointed in the process. It felt more like another election night in the USA watching the events unfold than the solemn occasion that it was.
But the other thing that bothers me in the media frenzy are questions like “What do Muslims want to see in the next pope?” or commentary from Lutherans, Anglicans, or even Mennonites as to what they want from the next pope. There are all sorts of interest groups chiming in with how they want to see their community represented in the pope, how they want a pope who will do things the way they want to, etc., and they aren’t, themselves, Catholics. As much as the Pope will have a visible role in the international community and will need to interact with all these groups, the Pope will not necessarily be the “ideal” for anyone of those groups. Knowing the story of God as portrayed in the Bible, God seldom gives us the leaders that we want and always gives us the leaders that God deems we need, even if those leaders make us uncomfortable. This was a time for the Catholic church to discern who the next leader of the Catholic church will be, not necessarily who the rest of the world wants that leader to be. And that discernment goes back to the Holy Spirit and God’s leading as to who the next Pope will be. God being sovereign over all the world, not just the Catholic church, we must trust that who was chosen, if the choosing was by the Spirit, will be who God determined will meet the pressing needs of the church and the world.
In short, I think our time as Christians and as citizens of the world is better spent in activities that don’t feed the insatiable desire of the media for the next scoop. If we are truly engaged in this selection, perhaps our time would be better spent focusing on the discernment of the Spirit in times of prayer, fasting and supplication, approaching God with our humble requests and submitting entirely to God’s will and purposes for the Catholic church. Perhaps it is not too late to change our attitudes. I’m sure we’ll still hear the media and the interest groups either praising or mourning the announced selection. Perhaps as Christians, we should take a stance where we submit to God’s leading and say, “Thy will be done…” and mean it.
Thanks to my wife, Heather, and to fellow MennoNerd, Andrew Mugford, for reading over this before I posted it and giving suggestions for clarity and focus. I greatly appreciate the help in keeping a humble and balanced tone to an article that concerns such a momentous time.