Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Papa Benedict: Sweet 16

The Catholic Church elected a new pontiff today, the 265th in its history dating back to Peter the Fisherman. Between the death of John Paul II, funeral, conclave and election of Josef Cardinal Ratzinger as Benedict XVI, I've been amazed at the tsunami of media coverage. Perhaps I shouldn't have been. Catholicism is the world's largest religion, numbering 1.1 billion adherents. And a Pope hasn't died since the late seventies, when much of today's media probably hadn't been on a prom date yet. So covering a papal funeral and conclave was a definite novelty, and one with lots of exciting audio/visual accouterments. Still, in the age camera phones, the Blackberry and DSL, it's sort of weird to watch all these cable stations focused intently on simple Vatican chimney, awaiting a puff of smoke. Prior to today's smoke signal there was nothing to do but explain the traditions and engage in speculation. Would they select a third world guy? A non-cardinal? An American? Someone who would drag the church kicking and screaming (or kneeling and genuflecting) into the new millenium? There was also discussion of the 117 voting age cardinals' simple living quarters. All accounts of this included mention of rooms with a private bath. Well I'm glad the media is fixated on bathrooms. I'd hate to have to picture sixty- and seventy-something guys all sharing a big locker room style shower situation. (Although like our biggest pro sports this is an all-male enterprise.) Would this be a bad time to mention that kitschy gift item of yesteryear, the Pope on a Rope? Tacky. So when the smoke cleared today, Pope Benedict XVI appeared at the window in St. Peter's Square to greet the assembled crowd. Not an Italian this time, as I suspected, but a German! Cardinal Ratzinger had been John Paul II's right hand man since 1981, serving as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This is the Enforcer role in the church, the guy who gives out demerits or raps the knucles of priests, bishops, theologians and other wayward Catholics who think they know more about church doctrine and practice than the church does. Prior to his recent surge in the bookmakers' odds, I don't think many people picked Cardinal Ratzinger as the next Pope. A lot of people look and sound stunned. I know I'm more than a little bit surprised. But hopeful. American Catholics in particular seem to want the church to change with the times, modify its doctrine to suit the lives and sensibilities of the people. There is no doubt the church needs repair, particularly in areas like the seminaries, universities and dioceses that are fuzzy on doctrine. And in the aftermath of the ongoing U.S. sexual abuse scandal, it needs to be shouted everywhere from the rooftops to the sewers that souls are more important than reputation, children are always to be protected ahead of clerics. Why this even needs to be stated is beyond me. There is that passage in the New Testament where Jesus suggests that anyone who harms a little one would be better off with a millstone around his neck. So why aren't some clerical necks itching? Perhaps Pope Benedict can revive the sense of the sacred in the church, repair the damage done by abuse of children and neglect of doctrine. Maybe he can remind people of what it means to be Catholic. It isn't something you call yourself, it's something you do. Maybe he can chase out the "smoke of Satan" that Pope Paul VI famously suggested entered the church in the 1970s. Some people have mentioned that recent Ratzinger homilies have been hard-nosed about the loss of faith and our need to return to it. Critics say he should realize you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. True. And dog poop also attracts them. But vinegar kills weeds and freshens the laundry. His nickname during his years as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith was "God's Rottweiller." Now others are calling him "The German Shepherd." That has a nice New Testament ring to it! The Italians are calling him "Papa Ratzi." It's springtime. Maybe Pope Benedict is ready to don his apron and conduct a spring housecleaning. With the help of the Holy Spirit, he just might succeed.

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