Father of Mine: A Lenten Reflection

If you grew up in an average occidental family, chances are excellent that at some point in your childhood, one of your parents threw open the door and screamed, “I’ve had it up to here with you kids! I’m leaving! You all can eat roots and berries or each other or the stinking dog for all I care! Oh, you won’t miss me — not as long as the TV’s still working! The next time you start wondering what’s become of me, whether I’m alive or dead or living out of a locker at the bus station, just pop in Lady and the Tramp for the five goddamned millionth time…”

Whereupon, you’d start bawling, whereupon the fed-up parent would discover a new lode of tolerance for you and your misbehavior and ingratitude, whereupon you’d all live more or less happily ever after. Either that or the parent really would split, leaving you with a lifetime supply of guilt and separation anxiety.

Well, after just under eight years at the head of our family, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has flung open that door and made a like announcement. Of course, the former theology professor was pretty sober about the whole thing. “In order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel,” he announced today at a consistory, “both strength of mind and body are necessary.” Benedict said that his own strength has deteriorated “to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

Benedict’s plea has a solid, observable medical basis. Nobody who’s seen the pope recently can have failed to note the exhaustion in his eyes or his general look of frailty. His older brother, Georg, himself a retired priest, has told the media that Benedict finds walking difficult, and was told by his doctor to avoid transatlantic travel. But this is still remarkable. Though popes aren’t generally Iron Man triathletes, on February 28th ours will become the first to leave office alive and willingly since the 15th century. Gregory XII, the last pope to shake hands with his successor, stepped down in 1415, in the midst of a schism.

That last factoid raises the question of just how rotten, ungrateful, and ungovernable we kids have become. At first glance, this is a pretty easy time to be pope. No armies are sacking Rome, no antipapal standards have been raised. No ancient senatorial families are scheming to dispatch Peter’s sucessor with hemlock or hammer and replace him with one of their own. No radicals are threatening to strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest. (If any were, they’d have to haunt Europe’s bike paths and clothing-optional beaches, since that’s where the royals seem to hang out these days.)

But it’s certainly no picnic. On one hand, we’ve got the UK’s Parliament voting in gay marriage at a margin of 400-175, while French deputies threaten to send each other to Devil’s Island over the same issue. The latest accomodations offered Catholic employers by the Obama administration have gone over with the American bishops like Jar Jar Takes Manhattan. Cardinal George now warns that mandatory coverage of assisted suicide could lie just around the corner.

Next we’ve got the scandals. Benedict ascended the throne promising to purge the Church of “filth” — his own word — meaning predatory priests. Since then, he’s banished the corrupt Fr. Marciel Maciel to a life of “prayer and penitence,” and formally clarified that “Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed.” But as new incidents, along with new revelations of old incidents, have continued to make headlines, the pope has continued to catch flak — much of it undeserved. In the spring of 2010, with the Times’ Laurie Goodstein holding him personally responsible for a failure to laicize Fr. Lawrence Murphy, and the Times’ Maureen Dowd calling for his replacement by a nun, pontiff-baiting reached its nadir.

It may be coincidence, but that was the same year Benedict first spoke of resigning.

Finally — well, okay, there is no “finally” when it comes to stressors in the career of a pope, but you get the idea — there’s the frazzling new connectedness of the global village. Benedict has spoken warmly of social media and begun tweeting his own messages. My colleague Kathy Schiffer, who attended the Vatican bloggers’ convention in spring of 2011, informs me that Vatican spokesman Fr. Frederico Lombardi swore the Holy Father begins each day with a fact-finding visit the blogosphere. If his temperament’s anything like mine, or even anything like the average person’s, this must mean he spends the remaining hours before lunch wanting to jam his ferula down somebody’s throat, the strain involved in repressing which urge can present serious health hazards to anyone of any age.

Well, maybe Benedict’s right to step down. Maybe too many of the challenges facing today’s Church do lie beyond his diminished physical and mental capacities, his experience, his leadership style. But with Lent casting its long, purple shadow, I’m going to ask myself whether anything I did or failed to do — anything I wrote or failed to write — contributed to Benedict’s burden as he faced these crises. I’ll also ask myself how I can make the new guy’s life and job easier. Driving a parent out of the house needn’t be the end of the world; there’s always therapy. Driving a pope off the throne, on the other hand, probably demands sterner remedies.

  • brenda

    I was saddened to hear that our dear Holy Father is ready to leave us but I think he picked the perfect time to do it. We will have one more day to speculate, complain and cry and then we must buckle down and spend our Lent in prayer and penance and fasting for our Church, for the good of our dear Pope Benedict XVl and also that God will give our future pope strength and wisdom. I found your article thought provoking. Thank you! :)

  • patti davis

    Cardinal Law was called to Rome says it all.

    [And Mahony will be voting in the upcoming conclave.]

  • Nina Evans

    I don’t think Pope Benedict is leaving like a disgruntled, disinterested, disinclined parent. He said that he understood that he was an interim pope hold the fort as it were for the next generation. The generation of a rebuilt but devastated spiritual Europe and a exhausted and empty Britannia. The world was consumed with the moment and what next distraction it could play with. Technology, pseudo relationships, and religions of self grew up like mushrooms and moss over old stale monuments of once great institutions. We, Protestants and Catholics, found ourselves not just irrelevant but a growing source of scorn and enmity. This new batch of likely candidates may have a decade or two less under their belts than Pope Benedict but he understood the emptiness of the current world and the call to Christians in this time. Was he cutting out? No he was simply waiting for the moment they (the cardinals) have to do some true soul searching. At this time of Lent, I am reminded of the scene at the Last Supper. Jesus was surrounded by 12 men who were afraid(with good reason), defiant (maybe not so good reason), and discouraged(more than just Judas…enough of them asked Jesus : is it I). But like the excellent leader that he is, he is bidding these flawed men to become more just as Christ made of Simon a new creature in Him. What wonders we will see. I pray for my brothers and sisters in the Roman Church and pray the Holy Spirit guide these “princes of the church” to humble themselves before their Christ and walk this long road.

  • ginger

    Yes, we will soon enough be treated to the news cameras focusing on Mahoney as he sweeps out of his limo in full designer regalia and into the enclave to vote in the next Pope. Yuck.

    The Holy Spirit will be present and speaking, but whether that largely-corrupt group of power-wielding old men will listen is always a crapshoot at best.

    Meanwhile, I believe that what Benedict has done is amazingly humble and speaks to his desire not to do to the Church what JPII did by holding onto the reins way past the time he could actually exert any control over the corrupt PTB at the Vatican—Benedict has decided to hand over the reins before he gets so decrepit and powerless that the schemers at the Vatican get totally out of control.

    I can only hope more popes choose to do the same when they grow too long in the tooth to be able to manage the Vatican courtiers and princes (queens?). I am exhausted just thinking about what a pain that job would be, and I am only half the age of Benedict. May B16 spend the rest of his years in peace, prayer, and joy.

  • Maryette

    I have also noticed just how very frail our Pope has become, and it almost makes me cry just to look at him. Our Catholic Papa reminds me of my own father, so watching Benedict’s health deteriorate on my TV has brought back too many memories of my dad’s long, slow decline. For his sake, I’m glad that he can get some rest,but I will miss this Pope more than I would have imagined. He and my father were from a different time, and despite the horrors of their times, I think that the world is worse now. The horrors of their time were exposed for all of the world to see and condemn, but here in our time, we just pretend our crimes never happen at all because the only real sin of our age is ‘judging.’ Fifty-five million dead infants just in America—and only God knows how many throughout the world. A world that literally throws its children away is beyond my comprehension. Well, I guess that it’s time to pray that the Holy Spirit socks it to the Cardinals. Being The Pope is a tough job; I’m glad that you mean to be charitable to the new guy.

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