Dear Friends –
We are, more or less, half way through Lent. How is it going for you. Has it been a season for drawing closer to God. I can remember times in my own life (before I was a priest) that Lent did not even really occur to me between Sundays. I can remember other Lents that were great times of reflection and growth in my relationship with God. Which is this Lent for you? Or is it somewhere in between? Have you kept the disciplines to which you committed at the beginning of Lent? If not, you can’t possibly believe you are alone in that. And the best thing is that we are part of a religious system that is all about starting over. There is plenty of time to recover the rest of Lent. Simply start over again, recover your commitment, and pray for resolve and strength to do better for the rest of the season.
I have been quite interested in the coverage of Pope Benedict’s resignation/retirement. Most of you know that i use social media a lot. So I have not only paid attention to the news media, but also to Facebook, twitter and other means of mass communication as well. All of this reading, listening, and watching has revealed a great deal of ignorance about Catholicism in general and, more specifically, about the Pope and the papacy. And, shockingly, much of that ignorance comes from Catholic quarters. I want to remind us all of a couple of things as we pray together for the guidance of the Holy Spirit on those who will choose the 265th successor of St. Peter.
1. While there are certainly different points of view in the Church and while we speak of “electing” a Pope, there are no political parties and it has been interesting to hear reporters and those they interview opine that it is time for a change in the same spirit they might be hoping for a change of political party to issue in new policy changes. The teachings of the Church are NOT political policies and they are not subject to the winds of political change the way political policies are.
2. The Pope has quite limited Authority. HE IS NOT THE HEAD OF THE CHURCH. St. Paul reminds us in numerous places, that Jesus Christ is the head of the Church (Col 1:18, 1 Cor 11:3, et. al.). A Pope is the Vicar of the Head of the Church and is referred to the “visible head of the Church.” But he has limited authority with regard to the teachings and practices of the Church. St. Paul gives us a beautiful way of understanding the authority of Church leaders when he tells the Corinthians: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received…” (I Cor 15:3) He then goes on to lay out a concise teaching of the good news. Earlier in the same letter, he uses the same formula (I received, I handed on) when teaching about the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:23). Any teacher in the Church, including her chief teacher, the Pope, is responsible to obedience to all that the Church hands on to him. A Pope cannot, even with his limited authority of extraordinary infallibility, cannot simply change Church teaching. He is responsible to call the Church to deeper commitment to and understanding of what has been, what is, and what always will be.
3. The Holy See is a sovereign state, so the Pope, as a head of state does have political authority. He does have administrative responsibility for a political structure situated in a few hundred acres on the Tiber River surrounded entirely by the ancient city of Rome. There has been a lot of talk this week about the need to reform the administrative structures within this, the smallest sovereign nation in the world. It is important to keep that separate from the responsibility the Pope has a spiritual leader of a Church of 1..2 billion souls. Whether the authority is recognized or not, the man who sits on the Chair of Peter is the shepherd, the Pastor, of all the Christians in the World. If you look at the history of the Papacy, those papal administrations most seen as failures are those in which the Pope himself forgot that he had two distinct roles: a political sovereign and spiritual leaders, and was more focused on secular power than on spiritual authority. Most of us will never be affected by the internal machinations of the Vatican City State. All of us will be affected by the spiritual leadership of a good pope. We must keep those distinctions in mind.
4. The Church is not an American reality; it is truly Catholic, i.e. “universal.” We can sometimes be very provincial in thinking about and talking about the Church. The influence of the “global south” in the Church is a realty that cannot be ignored. In the 1st Century, an essentially Jewish institution became “Catholic” as the Church spread from Palestine to all corners of the known world. In the last 500 years, the Church has once again spread from being an essentially Roman (or European) institution to being more Catholic. While the church is stagnate or contracting in much of the European world (including North America), it is growing in the Southern Hemisphere – Africa, India, Latin America. Those areas will continue to be quite influential in the affairs of the universal Church.
At this time, we must pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit on those who are responsible for choosing the next Pope. We must pray also that those Cardinals will be open to the work of the Spirit in the Conclave.