The Cardinal

You are a cardinal of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, a modern man, and for the past seven days, in private conversations in Rome with cardinals you trust, you’ve been admitting what you would never say in public.

You were shocked at the outpouring for John Paul II. You were shocked at the four million who came to Rome, at the line that stretched across the Tiber, at the tears.

You had no idea.

Not that you didn’t have real affection for the old man. He was probably a saint. All that suffering, dragging his broken body into each day the past five years. That’s a long time on the cross.

But you thought he was yesterday’s news. Everyone had already said goodbye to him at those big audiences in the Paul VI hall. And let’s face it, the church under John Paul was slammed every day as conservative, ossified, reactionary.

Here’s another strange thing. In the polls on churchgoing and belief it’s always Catholics on the street in Europe and America who say they want change and reform. They’d been saying it for years! And yet it was Catholics on the street from Europe and America—real nobodies, not to be impolite but just regular Catholics—who engulfed Rome to weep and yell Santo, Santo!

*   *   *

You sit and think: We have to consider what the crowds signified, what the outpouring meant. Maybe God was telling us something.

You try to walk through the data. Everyone says John Paul was popular because he was a rock star. He had a special appeal to the young. People loved him because he was so vibrant and dynamic.

Then you think—or rather that part of your mind that habitually questions your main themes on any given day tells you—Wait, the guy could barely walk, he couldn’t even move his face. He looked like, God forgive me, the Hunchback or something. He was writing encyclicals and telling people what seems to be good is not good, and what seems to be old is true. That doesn’t sound like a rock star.

You think: The fact is, John Paul was not an expression of his times, he existed in opposition to the times. He defended church doctrine and moral teaching because he thought they were true! He wouldn’t abandon the truth. In the Catholic colleges of America they didn’t see the truth he spoke as true. They thought it was archaic. Catholics in colleges and newsrooms, on campuses and on TV, are always going on and on about the world needs contraception, we need married priests, we need women priests. Now it’s the right to die.

*   *   *

The cardinal was getting a headache. So many colliding thoughts. Worse, they were thoughts at odds with the common wisdom. And the cardinal doesn’t like to be any more at odds with the common wisdom than he absolutely has to be. Life is tough enough.

He goes to dinner at a fine Roman restaurant with a handful of cardinals. He has a glass of Chianti, and then two. The service is excellent. Rome knows how to treat a cardinal. And Rome appreciates the burden that faces them: how to replace John Paul, the man the church just found out is considered irreplaceable.

The cardinals’ conversation turns to the funeral.

A Cardinal from South America says, “I had a thought. When the crowd kept applauding during the Mass—to me, looking out at them, it seemed as if they were saying: ‘We’re not just observers anymore, we’re the Church, Hear us!’ It seemed to me possibly quite significant.”

Silence as they all considered this.

An old cardinal with what seemed a German accent cleared his throat.

“What they want, I believe, is a healthy church. For all John Paul’s illness, they thought he was a healthy man. Emotionally and psychologically healthy in a way modern culture is not.

“It seems to me the meaning of the crowds, the meaning of the cries at the mass, is this: ‘We loved this hero of truth, and we want a hero of truth.’ They want someone who won’t bow to the thinking of the world. They want someone who will clean the stables, too. The corruption and worldly values of the church, the sex scandals—these must be dealt with.”

At this point an American cardinal made an indignant sound, and tried to interrupt. But the old cardinal raised his hand and continued.

“The church needs someone who’ll clean the church, defend it and refresh it. At the same time we need a man who can engage the world intellectually on the coming bioethical dramas and explain why trying to create human life in a Petri dish will be the end of us, the end of humanity. For man will do what he can do, and when he can grow replacement humans to give people new hearts that will allow them to live forever, well, that’s what they’ll do. We’ll have human fetal farms, you wait.

“But even more important than any of this, the new pontiff must have a holy soul. He must be a man who prays to God, is led by God, loves God above all. And here’s the great problem for us: this person may not be the most charming or accessible person in the world.”

A young cardinal leaned forward. “I don’t disagree, my friend, but in order to teach the world you must draw its eyes and ears! We need someone who captures the imagination of the world. We can’t lead unless they look and listen. For that we need a rock star.”

Silence again.

Then a young cardinal from Asia said, “Excuse me, but I have less knowledge about our brother cardinals than you. Is there a man who has all that is needed plus he’s a rock star?”

The cardinals thought. “No,” said one. “Or not that we know.”

“If that is true,” said the cardinal from Asia, “It would seem our duty is to choose a great man who is not necessarily a dramatic or endearing figure. The Holy Spirit will give him voice. Our time will need greatness. ‘For nowadays the world is lit by lightning.’ “

There was silence again.

Someone called for the bill.

*   *   *

Outside was an enterprising crew from NBC.

“Your excellencies, how are the bishops thinking? After the outpouring of love the past 10 days, are you thinking that you need a dramatic figure, a rock star who’ll capture the imagination of the world?”

“The Holy Spirit will decide,” said the old Cardinal with the German accent.

And our modern cardinal walked home to the Vatican, met with his aides in the suite, lay down with his headache, which was now very bad, closed his eyes and thought: Now more than ever. He dragged himself up, and knelt by the bed.