It is disquieting, the resignation of the pope. “We are in uncharted territory,” said a historian of the church. An old pope is leaving but staying within the walls of the Vatican, and a new one, younger and less known, will come before Easter.
In a week’s conversation with faithful and believing Catholics, I detected something I’ve never quite heard before, and that is a deep, unshaken, even cheerful faith accompanied by a certain anxiety, even foreboding. I heard acceptance of Pope Benedict’s decision coupled with an intense sympathy for what is broadly understood to be his suffering, from health problems to the necessity that his decision was a lonely one, its deepest reasoning known only to him. There was a lot of speculation that attempting to run the Vatican in the new age of technology, of leaks and indiscretions and instant responses, would have been hard on him.
So here are some things Catholics have been telling me.
From a Catholic journalist: “I trust Papa to know that he is doing the right thing, and the best thing, for the church. She is his whole life and nothing he has ever done has been but for her good. That said, you know that saying, ‘It’s going to get worse before it gets better’? That’s pretty much where I am about it. I think there is going to be a great deal of intrigue” in the conclave. She thinks some see it as the “last, best chance to try to ‘correct’ the ‘misguided’ trajectories of John Paul II and Benedict the 16th, and I think that is the practical reason Benedict is doing this now—he is a mystic but a very practical, clear-eyed one. He knows that he has more sway over the conclave alive than dead.”
He would have been deliberate about the timing of his announcement, just before Lent, which “has helped to intently focus us on our prayer for the church at a time when she needs our focused prayer, fasting and sacrifice. It’s a little chilling to consider that he may feel the church needs all three at this moment. The whole world is always watching a conclave but this time it may be watching more closely, with eyes that are both interested and on the lookout for wolves. But ultimately, I am willing to be optimistic. I tend to take the long view on these things, because I know God’s hand is always at work in everything, and that all things work for our good—in His time, though, not in ours, which is the thing that gets us unnerved.”
From a parish priest in New York City: “The resignation was truly shocking, and hard to imagine. People are concerned about the successor. They’re asking, What does it mean for the papacy? Will future popes be pressured to leave? Is it a sign of the technological thing that wears people out?”
From a historian of the Catholic Church: Some have been “unsettled” by the resignation because they think of the pope as a rock of stability, “but Benedict’s point is that he couldn’t be that anymore. Christ is the head of the Church, not him. If his physical and mental circumstances were not adequate then he should get out of the way. It said a lot about his character, just as it said a lot about John Paul’s that he should stay.” John Paul gave his last great lesson “by dying a holy death in front of the world.” Benedict’s lesson is humility and self-sacrifice.
In choosing a successor, “I think age is going to be an issue. I don’t know there’s any ceiling,” but the cardinals will think twice about older candidates. John Paul and Benedict had returned the Church to its biblical roots: “Saint Peter was prophet and martyr, but he wasn’t a manager. . . . The optimal outcome of this process is a vibrant evangelical pastor who hires a good manager to run the Curia for him. We don’t elect popes to move slots around on organizational charts.”
There is an old saying, God has already chosen the next pope, it’s up to the cardinals) to figure out who God’s choice is. The historian observes: “That doesn’t mean they’ll figure it out.” He remembered Benedict saying long ago, when he was a cardinal, “The role of the Holy Spirit in the conclave is to prevent us from electing a pope who will completely destroy the church.”
His hope: “As the dying John Paul II put everyone on their best behavior in 2005, the self effacing humility Benedict is displaying will put everyone on their best behavior again.” He’s not necessarily optimistic that will happen.
In past conclaves there has always been an idea that America’s superpower status constituted “a kind of veto” over the choosing of an American. America is so formidable, we’re not going to give her the papacy too. “You don’t hear that anymore,” the historian said, because “people don’t see us as a superpower anymore.” An American pope is possible, though unlikely.
It’s true, the historian said, that people are thinking about what nation or region the next pope might come from, but also true the Italians want very badly to win back the papacy back after 35 years of a Pole and a German. Is it because they believe only an Italian can understand and manage the Vatican? “That’s what they say,” he said. But the real reason is that Italy has lost a great deal—its economy is in the doldrums, its politics dysfunctional, its culture a mess. “Italy now has only two things, good food and the Vatican.”
From a Catholic writer: “I can’t quite say I am at peace,” about Benedict’s decision, but she feels “a unity of divine purpose in what the Holy Father has set in motion.” She sees a certain amount of “suffering” ahead. She sees Benedict’s decision as “at once a model, and an urgent plea, and a warning.”
Almost everyone I spoke to mentioned that they’d taken comfort from the words of Benedict, in a general audience in the Vatican on Ash Wednesday: “What sustains and illuminates me is the certainty that the Church belongs to Christ, whose care and guidance will never be lacking.”
A Washington-based Catholic activist spoke with some urgency of Cardinal Roger Mahony, who is scheduled to go to Rome to vote on Benedict’s successor. As the Washington Post this week noted in an editorial, Cardinal Mahony is “lucky not to be in prison” for his role in covering up hundreds of well-chronicled cases of child sexual abuse in the 1980s, during his 25-year tenure as archbishop of Los Angeles. A few weeks ago he was forcefully rebuked and relieved of many of his public duties by his successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez.
Said the activist: “If Mahony goes to Rome it will be so wrong. And the media will make everything about him.”
They will, and understandably. It would be a shame, and another scandal for the church, if Cardinal Mahony goes, and votes. He should take a nod from the pope he praises, and remove himself.