I’m pretty good at handicapping the ponies (Pete McPortland’s daughter could hardly be anything less), but when it comes to papabile, I might as well be a hunch bettor. Ask me who the next pope will be, and I’m likely to give you the equivalent of “whichever cardinal has the cutest name” or “the guy who’s praying with blinkers on for the first time.”
I can’t even rely on my foolproof college basketball system for predicting a win in the Religion News Service’s brilliant take on papal March Madness, the Sweet Sistine brackets. For colleges, I always go with which school’s team name would logically win a smackdown (fierce animals beat most people, for instance, and birds of prey beat small mammals; for the inevitable Wildcats v Wildcats or the too-little-information-provided creatures like the St Louis What-In-God’s-Name-IS-This Billiken, coin flips suffice), but cardinals don’t have mascots. And I have too much post-flu serotonin depletion going on to attempt to game the system by, say, choosing on the basis of which cardinal has the sassiest motto or most powerful suburbicarian titular see.
I can’t even tell you who I’d like to see become the next pope. (I can tell you, vehemently, who I wouldn’t like. But chances are you share my vehemence, and God’s already tired of my yacking.) I’m standing where pretty much everyone is at this point—at the rail for the morning workout before the sun comes up, knowing nothing, trusting all.
This will be the sixth time in my life I’ve been in this place with the Church: a little uneasy, a little excited, a little cynical, a little hopeful. I’ve been a Catholic (albeit for a long period a lapsed one) during the reigns of seven popes, and been in the same room with two of them. Each one of them had an impact on my Church and on my life—though it was almost never the impact the Church or I expected when the white smoke went up.
I was born just three weeks before Pius XII declared the doctrine of the Assumption in 1950. His thin, pinched features watched over my grammar school classrooms—and the kitchens of many of my classmates’ more devout families. (We had lots of Mary and Jesus, including a two-foot high plaster statue of the Infant of Prague dressed in robes made from my godmother’s wedding dress, but popes were just too distant.)
John XXIII changed that. For good or ill, he was my generation’s pope, and we felt he’d be more comfortable sitting at the kitchen table than peering down at it superciliously. In a way, I’m like some kind of Kumbaya sedevacantist; a bit of the seat has felt empty for me ever since his death. In him I fell in love with my Church, and it’s the strength of that love that brought me back home.
John Paul I’s ephemeral reign really only had the chance to stoke the Vatican conspiracy machine, so I can’t judge. Back then, I loved that he invoked God as Mother and Father. Not sure how long that would have lasted under any circumstances.
And of course Blessed John Paul II. His was the Church I left (though I continued to work for it), and it’s the Church of so many who stayed or joined. I helped do media promotion for his 1987 visit to the United States, and was in a room full of Hollywood’s biggest bigwigs who jumped over chairs to get close to him. The undeniable power of the papacy was never more clear.
As Cardinal Ratzinger, the Inquisitioner, Pope Benedict XVI had epitomized many of the reasons I left the Church. So who’da thunk it would be to this pope’s Church I would return, with so much gratitude and respect for the wisdom and humility of the man?
The Holy Spirit—that’s Who’da thunk, the only papal handicapper worth putting your money on. And if I were to whisper my wish, which is all any of us could do, I would hope the Spirit and the College of Cardinals would be leaning toward someone who combines the best of my two favorite popes:
—a man with the openness to the world’s hunger for Christ of a John XXIII, and a commitment to Christ’s Church as unshakable as that of Benedict XVI;
—a man with John XIII’s pastoral genius and air of being “one of us,” along with Benedict XVI’s steel in the face of the Enemy;
—a man who is capable of causing people to fall in love with the Church—as well as being open to drawing the lost ones home.
In other words, we need an average Joe, with a twist. And I mean that literally. May the Holy Spirit give us a new St Joseph, guardian of the Church as he was of Mary and her Child—a father, a protector, a craftsman, a man in the world but not of it. It strikes me that the feast of St Joseph the Worker, March 19, may fall within the Conclave. What better time for the Holy Spirit to give us a pope with the gifts of those two Josephs—Roncalli and Ratzinger? And what better name might the new pope choose than Joseph?
Who’ll give me odds on Papa Giuseppe I?