Heres a plan for the next popes busy first day
By MICHAEL J. FARRELL
While most of us cope with humdrum life, there are doubtless some who in quiet moments stop the world and ask themselves: What will the next pope do? High on the list of such people are those high on the list of eligibility for the job.
Would-be popes have probably, over the years, thought some radical thoughts that later, as popes, they did not dare to think. This could be because the Holy Spirit later urged them to caution or because they lost their nerve.
So now is a good time for the next pope to fortify himself for a brand new millennium when the creaky old church hangs on his words and awaits his decisions. New words and fresh decisions. Once, John Paul IIs words were new and his decisions fresh, but it is the human condition that people grow old and tired, sometimes even irrelevant. A new pope, by contrast, will have a huge opportunity to be heard worldwide and change things on earth if not in heaven.
Vatican scuttlebutt has settled on perhaps half-a-dozen individuals as more papabili than the pack. History hints, however, that such favorites seldom cut the papal mustard once those old men get into the conclave and the Holy Spirit hovers flapping her wings and daring or coaxing the cardinals to be all they can be. Along with the Holy Spirit, throw in some quite human variables such as old scores to be settled or other weaknesses to be coped with. Soon the apple cart can be upset even in spite of John Pauls revamped procedures.
If there is anything at all cosmic or godly in the conclave, the usual petty and political considerations will eventually give way to some epiphany, some big insight reserved for such special occasions. At a certain stage, in the quiet of those voting cardinals hearts, business as usual will be put aside and the immensity of the Christian project, the message and mission of Jesus Christ will come into focus front and center, and electors may decide to do the extraordinary because, at this moment in history, only the extraordinary will do.
Thats when thoughts might turn to others slightly less papabili than the ones the worlds wisdom had been naming all along. There are perhaps a dozen such men on the periphery of the usual frontrunners. Out of this group the new pope usually emerges -- Karol Wojtyla, the present pope was one of them. Not being smack in the spotlight, theyre not as well known. But not unknown, either. And out there at the periphery its likely most electors know more good than bad things about them -- not being hot favorites, no one bothered to cut them down to size, never mind that they might be men of stature who could not readily be cut down to size.
The very deliberate but ultimately frantic voting ends, and all the old men from all over the world are looking, almost in surprise, at this new person they have elected. Looking at him with compassion, perhaps, for the huge load he has taken on his shoulders; but with affection, too, because how could you not like a new pope who, so far, has done absolutely nothing to alienate anyone? Its likely that, unless he is wearing horns, the world at large will go crazy about him, strain to learn about him; after an interregnum, as they call it, people will be relieved and full of hope and eager to support this suddenly exalted figure.
Two thousand years of tradition and psychological conditioning will be telling us this person, though only a man, stands in the place of Jesus Christ, who was, somehow, divine. Immense power, therefore, will cling to the new pontiff. His will be a great responsibility and a great opportunity. For a short time he will, within reason, be able to do what he wants. That window of promise may last a year, but the first days will be crucial, the first hours even more crucial, the first minutes -- not until the following pope is elected will so much attention and so much goodwill be focused on one human being.
So what that man is thinking now is what likely will run through his mind in those crucial early hours.
Being presumably wise, he would realize that being elected pope changes every pope. But also that how they are pope changes popes. That, for example, moving to the Vatican, manned by what is commonly called the curia, puts popes in danger of never again, for a single moment, being their own man.
The new man will surely ask, however fleetingly: Who do I want to be? Being a decent man, he will not want to offend anyone. On the other hand, if he has lived the last half-century or more, he will know the Vatican bureaucracy, though surely made up of good men, too, swallows up popes and ultimately hinders them from being what Jesus Christ, if he had popes in mind, would wish his successors to be.
Such a man might, on that very first day, when heaven and especially earth are willing him to do the right thing -- such a pope might ask for the resignation of everyone at the Vatican, without exception. With a view to starting over. With a view to having the freedom to do what he thinks, not what a Vatican bureaucracy, smothering under the encrustations of centuries, might think.
A little self-interest might reasonably help him here. No matter who the new man is, he knows he is, deep down, quite ordinary -- only a man, in fact -- yet elevated above the world in a unique way that happens to no one else on earth. He would have to be peculiarly spineless not to think: Ill do this my way. And he would have to be intellectually dim not to see that the Roman curia and its worldwide appendages -- perhaps with the best of intentions all around -- has let no recent pope do it his way. He would, furthermore, have to be achingly out of touch not to realize that the Christian churches are floundering; that while Catholics everywhere flock to stadiums in search of a leader, they have drifted away from the church of which the pope is leader; that this pontificate, in the day-to-day clutches of the curia, has thrown collegiality and other treasured Vatican Council values to the winds.
A new century, a new millennium, a new papacy: in short, a spectacular time to start over.
Considering that our new man did not sail through on an early, easy vote, he is probably from some less conspicuous see, such as from Asia or the Americas or an overlooked corner of Europe.
He could get everyones attention by announcing, on his first day on the job, that he is moving, with a few disciples, to Bangkok -- or Buffalo.
And that, he might add with a wink, is just for starters.
Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.
National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 1999