Reading the always-terrific John Allen the other day, I found myself miffed at the notion that some Vatican-watchers think our hard-working Benedict XVI is not engaged enough — is in fact, a “part-time Pope”.
At the end of John Paul’s reign, Politi writes, the papacy was widely understood to play these unique roles:
“Respected interlocutor of the religions of the world, beginning with the other two great monotheisms: Judaism and Islam.”
“Spokesperson for human rights, beyond geographic, political, religious and cultural frontiers.”
A bully pulpit “capable of authoritatively addressing questions of war and peace,” such as the war in Iraq.
A religious authority capable of critically challenging the “errors and horrors” of distorted forms of religion, such as violence, intolerance, fundamentalism, and excessive entanglement with power.
“This is the legacy, beyond the coherence of its own creed and the witness to its own values, upon which the greater or lesser presence and influence of the Catholic church in the planetary arena depends,” Politi writes.
So, naturally, in this weeks First Things column, I wonder if a man in this supernatural position isn’t being judged with very earthbound eyes:
Political action is perceived as glamorous. It has about it an illusory aura of perpetual primacy; to the world, political engagement is the ultimate vehicle of utility. Benedict’s predecessor, Blessed Pope John Paul II, was happy to practice political messaging both subtle and subversive; his colossal global presence helped enlarge the very definition of a “governing pope.” Not particularly interested in acting as a manager and Vatican overseer, John Paul steered the papacy toward the geopolitical stage, and it is clear from Allen’s piece that some believe a pope who lacks the interest, or the calling, toward such engagement is somehow only half on the job.
One would be mistaken to think of the papacy as, first of all, a political or governing entity. It is that, but only in the minor. In the main, the papacy is a priesthood writ large: a calling to sacramental service and clear, unambiguous instruction. John Paul’s broad focus served a time and purpose unto heaven. Times have changed. Our faith in the Holy Spirit should reassure us that Benedict’s Christological fixation, which can seem narrow and provincial to some, indeed suits heaven’s purposes, today.
The world and its things and theaters of illusions fades away. We see it happening before our eyes, even now. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” (Mark 24:35)
Our pope is very right to bring the central message of his papacy back to Christ, Christ, Christ.
And it is perhaps a very fundamental lesson in trust, to stop insisting that the pope must be what our earthbound sensibilities and obsessions say he should be, but rather to wonder at it all, and believe that the Holy Spirit gives us precisely the pope we need for the times, if we will just pay attention.
It’s easy to get caught up in the world and the concerns before our faces, and to fall for the lie that the material reality is the primary reality I certainly fall for it often enough. Pope Benedict’s whole papacy has been about helping us to understand how ephemeral those things are, in contrast to the primacy and constancy of the reality of Christ
We can argue all sorts of smart and clever ideas, but that is why the simplicity of what is true must be kept before our eyes and repeated in our ears, so we can still find it.
UPDATE: I was very moved by this video of Benedict’s visit, the other day, to a Roman prison. And I was moved and inspired by his words, there: “I carry you all in my heart before the Lord…”
He is certainly thinner, and I’m sure this wore him out, but he seemed up to the work.
Related: Illustrating Friendship with Jesus