KANPUR, (chhotebhai)* — This is not about grammar, which is not my forte. Nor is it about glamour. (Hard to believe that he who recently demitted office reverted to wearing red shoes – yuk). This is a hard-boiled reflection on the papacy – its past, present and future. As the 115 remaining cardinals in the consistory prepare to enter the Sistine Chapel, we need to push hard for pristine values that should be at the core of the papacy, Catholicism, Christianity and the entire world.
It is therefore imperative for every world citizen, not just the Catholics, to reflect deeply, and pray earnestly, for a new pope who should be the Vicar (representative) of Christ, rather than a Shepherd (we are not dumb sheep) or a Roman Pontiff (Rome is just an accident of history, and we have had enough of stiff and starched pontiffs). The only thing I like about Dan Brown’s writing is his statement that “history is written by the victors”. This appears equally true for the history of the papacy. Fortunately, I have with me a book “A Compact History of the Popes”, written by Rev P.C. Thomas, and published by St. Paul’s. I have no reason to doubt its authenticity or bias in favour of the victors, the triumphalistic Catholic Church of the recent past. This article is heavily dependent on the information contained in that book, and is duly acknowledged.
Indeed, we need to learn the lessons of the past, lest we commit the same blunders. The history of the papacy, more particularly from the 4th to 16th Centuries, is far from flattering. Papal elections have been fraught with violence, murder, cloak and dagger style intrigue, nepotism, simony, debauchery and all out wars. Blatant evils of the past have, in more recent times, made way for subtler moves that may not attract media attention, or are difficult to prove.
In the past, the church and the papacy struggled for survival, against brutal Roman persecution (so why call ourselves Roman at all?) Then there was the evolution of dogma, the Arian and Nestorian heresies. The Canonicity of the Holy Bible (which books or texts were to be decreed as divine inspiration) was next. Then came the great Schism of the East in the 11th century, resulting in the Protestant Reformation. As I said in my earlier article “Quo Vadis Mater Ecclesia?”, Marxism, Darwinism, the French and industrial revolutions, the printing press, woman’s liberation, etc all challenged the Church, and its entrenched teachings. Space constraints prevent me from giving more details, but students of Church History will bear me out, that I am not making wild allegations.
The 20th century saw popes like Pius X, Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI seeking answers and trying to make the Church relevant to the times – resulting in the epochal pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Unfortunately, in the second half of his papacy, John Paul II started retracting into a shell (like a threatened tortoise). Benedict XVI turned the clock back further with his golden crockery (poor butler), red shoes ((poor chambermaid) and jaundiced yellow views (poor us)!
I would love to believe that the past is behind us. It isn’t. It is still staring us in the face. Hence the need to focus attention on it.
This brings us to the present. What do we see around us in both Church and the World? The Catholic Church has already regressed on the wished for renewal of Vatican II. What happened to ecumenism, dialogue with other religions, liberation theology, inculturation, biblical spirituality? All gone down the drain, because of its “threat perception.” What of the world? From the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, we now face the sceptre of terrorism, most often linked to Islamist groups. America’s armed response in Iraq and Afghanistan has only aggravated the situation. With social networking and information technology, there are no more secrets. We don’t need butlers to spring leaks. There are enough eyes in the sky and spies on the ground.
In world society we see other subtle changes. There is the entire gamut of sexual ethics and norms. There is a growing religious apathy or redundancy, especially among “developed” or affluent nations. Earlier one prayed to God for rain; now one has to just switch on the tube well. There is a growing assertion of women’s rights. Oligarchies are now being asked for transparency and accountability.
Can the oligarchical, cocooned, defensive Catholic Church remain untouched by what is happening in the world and society? To remain indifferent or distant would be to its own detriment.
To the future then. We need a pope who can, not only guide and lead the Catholic Church, but also be a person who can interact with the world (specifically the Islamic world). No “clash of civilizations” please. We also need a figure who can empathize with what is happening in society, and make religion relevant to the modern human being, including women and youth. This is not a tall order. I often tell people that I follow Jesus not so much because he is the son of God, but because I see him as the perfect human being. I can model my life on his words and actions. I see in him the answer and solution to all my problems. Jesus always referred to himself as “Son of Man”, Bar-e-nasa in his native Aramaic, or Aam Aadmi in today’s parlance. In fact, the great mystic St Theresa of Avila in her classic “InteriorCastle”, clearly states that the first room in the castle is the humanity of Jesus. That is the stepping stone to divine intimacy and ecstasy.
6 H Pope
So what kind of a pope am I looking at? I am for a 6 H Pope – one who is Human, Humble, Honest, Holy, Harmonious and Hardworking. This may sound like stating the obvious. History is eloquent testimony that this has not been so. Sadly, one does not even see these qualities in many of our cardinal electors, bishops or clergy. So where will the pope come from?
Who should be Pope? As per Canon Law he is the “head of the College of Bishops” (Can 331). “If he does not have the episcopal character, he is immediately to be ordained bishop” (Can 332:1). This clearly indicates that the choice of pope is not restricted to the cardinal electors, or even the bishops. So the net may be cast much wider, beyond the 115 men in the Sistine Chapel. Again, history is replete with instances of men who were not cardinals, or not present in the consistory, being elected popes. In some cases humble monks declined or deferred the election. We have instances where 3 or 4 persons were simultaneously claiming to be the pope. There have been vacancies in the papacy for over 4 years. On the other hand some papal electees actually died before they could be consecrated. Some popes have had tenures as brief as 10 days.
Despite such vagaries the church is alive and affirms its “apostolic succession”. So what is papal history saying to us? It reminds me of the adage, “Haste makes waste”. What is the hurry in electing a pope? What is the imperative to have a new pope before Palm Sunday or Easter? Why this inordinate haste? Do we doubt God’s providence? Can we not learn from the past?
I believe that the office of the pope has far reaching consequences, beyond the pale of the visible Catholic Church. This requires time, reflection, prayer and informed debate. In a federal democracy like India we find that after a period of political turmoil or uncertainty President’ Rule is imposed for a 6 month cooling off period. In like manner I would feel that the collegial Catholic Church needs a 3 to 6 month gestation period. Public opinion must be built up. Sounding boards should be heard. Issues should be raised and analyzed. Wide ranging consultations should be held. A sustained prayer campaign should be launched. Why is the CBCI silent? Only then should a pope be elected.
All this may sound like wishful thinking. Today’s dreams become tomorrow’s reality. So I dare to dream; as the first pope, St. Peter, said we would, if we are filled with the Holy Spirit. Whether the next pope is white, brown, yellow, black or red (I mean his skin not his shoes) is immaterial, provided he has the 6H formula, and an extended period of discernment is facilitated.
Having studied the past, and analyzed the present, I am tense and apprehensive about the future. Many of past papal elections could in no way be attributed to the working of the Holy Spirit. To the contrary. So this time around I sincerely hope and humbly pray that 230 ears (each cardinal presumably has 2) will be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Till then, like an expectant mother, I am tense.
* The writer is a lay Catholic (period)