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How about a cardinal who is mamabile?


The recent gathering of cardinals in Rome has come and gone. I suppose it was quite something to see a giant swell of red hats in waves of motion: standing, sitting, kneeling in unison. I heard on the radio that all but 10 of these superannuated shepherds were appointed by John Paul II, our current shepherd supremo. And the big buzz, of course, is that from their ranks our next Holy Father will emerge to herd us into the brave new world of Catholicism in the 21st century. So I know I wasn’t alone in seizing the moment to re-assess the pope-ability (a tremendously loose translation of that chic Italian term, papabile, or good pope material) of the members of that venerable body of ecclesial field marshals.

Now, with all due respect to the current occupant of the Vatican, I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of being papabile. (That’s pronounced pah-pah-bee-lay, for those like me who don’t speak Italian.) Imagine a job description: Low pay, fast-paced position for patriarch with a firm sense of authority. Must like to hear own voice echo in large stadiums and plazas; ride through crowds in enclosed vehicle (claustrophobes need not apply); ability to bless large quantities of rosaries. Command of world languages, endearing human interest stories in personal background desirable but not necessary. Moderate misogynist tendencies tolerated. Benefits: free housing, liberal -- make that generous -- clothing allowance, transportation and meals provided.

Probably most of those cardinals fit this job description pretty well. In order to narrow the candidate pool down a bit perhaps we ought to take a fresh look at the qualifications that will make the best next pope. I propose we look for, well, the mamabile.

That’s right. Let’s ferret out the ones who have the qualities that make good mothers. Because then we’d really be getting somewhere. Mamabile know how to apply the Band-Aids and kiss the owies. They also know when to call the doctor because the infection’s not getting better. Mamabile can manage sibling rivalry and help the parties find common ground with a sense of fairness and discretion. Mamabile can stretch what’s in the fridge at the end of the week to come up with dinner or organize an impromptu potluck. Loaves and fishes anyone? No one goes hungry at mama’s house.

Mamabile could handle ecclesiastical egos and portentous power mongers in nothing flat: “Now listen here, young man, you will take a time out until you can think of a way to include everyone in your game, do you hear me?” Mamabile would invite Joan, Theresa, Elizabeth, Diana and Jeannette over for coffee and tell them each to invite a friend. They’d solve the church’s problems before you could say “encyclical.”

Mamabile have written the book about servant leadership: They care about religious education in parishes because they’ve taught the classes and tried to make faith interesting to young people who would rather be outside playing ball or home watching TV. They care about who reads our sacred scripture on Sundays and whether inclusive language is used, because they know that words can hurt or heal. They care about how the church tends to the pain of the people who are divorced, gay and lesbian, or doubtful about the one true faith, because these are their sons and daughters, welcome at their dinner tables and family holidays. They care about the future of the church as a eucharistic community because they know just how important mealtimes are to maintaining spiritually and emotionally healthy families. Yet they’re not above letting someone else do the cooking now and then.

We have some precedent here: In 1961, John XXIII -- now there was mamabile -- actually wrote an encyclical called Mater et Magistra (“Mother and Teacher”). Forty years later we are still working to live these social teachings, to put global interdependence before the hegemony of industrialization, to work for the spiritual and physical welfare inherent in prioritizing the common good over promoting Western individualism’s emphasis on material prosperity, and to have the courage and courtesy to sit down at the same table with those with whom we differ, whether in our church family or our political neighborhood.

So, short of praying for a reincarnation of Angelo Roncalli, how about we rewrite the job description to really draw the mamabile out of the formidable pews of St. Peter’s: Wanted! World-class servant leader. Must work well with persons of diverse faiths. Willingness to lay down rhetorical arms. Must wash windows in order to see out clearly. Fluency in language of the heart. Able to “live in two cities” as stipulated by the Second Vatican Council. Experience riding in parades and waving from balconies not necessary, will train.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at bergolk@earthlink.net

National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2001