By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 16 February 2013 in The Madera Tribune
With uncanny timing, this week has brought together the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the Ash Wednesday kickoff to the Lenten season, and the annual hijacking of St. Valentine’s Day. How wonderful for unmarried Catholics, who now have ample excuse to be somber and reflective!
Not that all of us require one.
Yet a common thread of a different color can be also seen, and that would be love in its many forms.
For outsiders, the bond between Catholics and the Pope isn’t quite understood I suspect. After all, no one can deny the charisma of Pope John Paul II, who some pundits foolishly trivialize as a “celebrity pope.” But Pope Benedict is more known for his intellect. So why have some Catholics felt a sense of loss, upset or even guilt over his retirement?
In truth, such a reaction isn’t necessarily unique to any particular pope and even reporters are not immune. A CNN article published Wednesday describes how an elder journalist recently responded to a question of how he felt about the death of Pope John Paul I: “He shot me a horrified look, as if I had asked how he had felt after a family tragedy. ‘How do you think I felt?’ he shot back. ‘It was absolutely heartbreaking!’”
It is not a coincidence that the root of the word “pope” lies in ancient Greek for “father.”
Theologian and professor Scott Hahn, of Franciscan University of Steubenville, noted Tuesday on the website Facebook, “It’s a hard thing to explain to outsiders, the mystery of a family bond that we Catholics all share, and how deeply we feel it. But here is a man who is a father figure to us all, and not just in a symbolic way; for we really are united by a new birth, in the flesh-and-blood of the Eucharist. And this man, we know him to be our spiritual father, in a very real and mysterious way, even more than our own natural dads.”
If mainstream western media has tended to misinterpret this moment and the Catholic reaction, the shock felt by most has been far more universal and understandable. Depending on the source consulted, only two or three popes have voluntarily resigned in the past. Others resigned under pressure and several of those died as martyrs. The most recent resignation was Pope Gregory XII, who resigned in 1415 to heal a split in the Catholic Church.
Nearly six centuries later the resignation of Pope Benedict seems to contrast starkly with his more recent predecessors who died in office.
“But there comes a time,” Hahn wrote, “when a father becomes so old and infirm, that one of the most profound gestures of love might be to hand things over to the next one in line, like we see in Scripture, when David stepped down as king, for Solomon to succeed him, shortly before he died (1 Kings 1-2).”
Naturally the attention of many is on the imminent conclave in Rome to elect the next pope, which must begin between March 15 and 20 according to church law. All of the cardinals younger than 80 will participate, a total of 117 by then. Of these, 67 were appointed by Pope Benedict, and the rest by Pope John Paul. A two-thirds majority (78) will be needed to win the vote.
Thankfully this will take place during the Christian season of Lent, when Catholics, Orthodox, Episcopalians and some Protestants prepare for Easter Sunday with renewed prayer, repentance, self-denial, and compassion for those in need. When better than such a time to seek God’s guidance for such a decision?
I hope all people of good will, whether Catholic or not, will lend their prayers to ours that the world will be richly blessed by whomever the cardinals elect as pope.
As for Pope Benedict, he reminds me of words by author Rudyard Kipling, “If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master; / If you can think -- and not make thoughts your aim; / If you can meet with triumph and disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same; / If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken / Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, / Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken / And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools… You’ll be a Man, my son!”
You may even be a pope.
Let us remember all of our “fathers,” spiritual or otherwise, in prayer this Lent.