Thursday, February 21, 2013

More about Pope Benedict

There has been a rich assortment of reflections about the papal resignation, many of them echoing my own initial reaction: that this is the most significant thing Benedict XVI has done for the future of the church.

I was particularly struck by a Commonweal post by Joseph A. Komonchak (2-19-13), "Benedict's Act of Humility."  The humility and courage of B-16, as they call him in the social media (or Benny), is that he has subordinated the person to the office: it is not the man, often seen as a kind of god-king, who is above and beyond the church (and criticism), but the office he holds that matters. That, too, is a human institution in need of change.

In resigning, Pope Benedict has brought the papacy down to earth, according to Komonchak and others) just as his decision humanizes him.

After all, the church is not the pope, and the pope is not the church. The church is not the hierarchy, the institution in Rome. We who try to be faithful Catholics do not look to Rome for spiritual nourishment but to our local parish; there we find the community of believers who are the church.
The church is not our religion; our religion is Christianity. Such insights have come through in many of the articles reacting to the pope's decision.

So this historic resignation is a sign of some creeping (dare I say it?) democracy. Yet, ironically, at the same time, the media's glare on his possible successor and the coming conclave once again suggests the old, inflated notion that the Bishop of Rome is of such supreme importance that the existence of the church, its future, depends on the man elected.

So it is hard to leave the mystique of the papacy behind. It does not help that popes continue to live in the gilded splendor of a Renaissance palace, dressed as if part of an ancient culture rather than as part of the 21st century. (Surely an Italian tailor could come up with a sharp white suit, with pants, for the pope.)

The pope is important as a symbolic source of unity, as Bishop of Rome, but he must also be human, accessible, perhaps (like John XXIII) a man of humor and common sense. A man who knows something of family life and human struggles. A man who can listen as well as teach.

Benedict XVI, for all his missteps, moved us closer, I think, to shifting the papacy from its lofty isolation to the real world. The church--the faithful--are open to change. Now is the time for its leaders to follow, in humility, and for the pope to be the Servant of the Servants of God (one of his many titles worth retaining).

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