April 27, 2008 — On April 19, 2005, white smoke curling from the quaint stovepipe above the storied Sistine Chapel announced that the new head of the Roman Catholic Church was Josef Cardinal Ratzinger. Rumbles of disappointment were heard throughout the world.
Ratzingers predecessor, John Paul II, had appointed him Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a position once held in the 15th century by Torquemada, of Inquisition infamy. Irreverently dubbed the Popes hatchet man, Ratzinger was viewed by many as more a legalistic enforcer of antique ideas than a shepherd of a flock needing to be fed and led.
During six days in the U.S. last week this Bavarian-born Pontiff showed himself, and his church, in ways none of his 363 predecessors had ever done. Abandoning papal precedents, the scholarly and reserved cleric, reputedly married to medieval manners and morals, comported himself as very much a man of the moment. His gentle soft-spoken manner and transparent sincerity gave a very different impression from his reputation as a hard-nosed conservative.
In a precedent-shattering private meeting with victims of clergy sexual abuse he forthrightly addressed what one victim told the pontiff is "a cancer in his flock." The misty-eyed Holy Father agreed with him, offered his heartfelt apologies on behalf of his church, and assured the deeply moved man that steps will be taken to assure it would not happen again.
One cynical blogger scorned the Popes unabashed emotion as "crocodile tears". The reserved Teutonic scholar is not that good an actor.
Popes are arguably among the most influential human beings to populate our planet in any century. No one living between Istanbul and Point Barrow is untouched by this man and his forbears in office. As in many more mundane events in Yankee Stadium, we who watched on the tube had a better view than the 60,000-plus who were physically present. It was covered by an estimated 5,000 worldwide media reporters.
This Pope, who has astonished locals and visitors in Rome by strolling unannounced around Vatican Square on pleasant evenings, greeting and chatting like Harry Truman on his morning constitutionals, reportedly gave his security detail near apoplexy as he worked the crowds pushing against the velvet restraining ropes.
Encountering such unsubdued enthusiasm, one wonders if he reflected on the strength and vitality of American Catholics vis-à-vis the reality that of all nations in his flock, this one is giving him more ecclesiastical static and grief than most.
Six hundred clergy dispersed throughout the huge stadium to serve those who came to receive the Sacrament. I was struck by comments of the Vatican priest providing explanatory commentary on the proceedings. Twice he said "He is just a man," an appellation not commonly used about "His Holiness," and three times, "His Holiness wants everyone desiring to receive Communion to do so." Was this an implicit suspension of the traditional rule that only Catholics in good standing are permitted to receive?
It was surely one of the more earthy papal extravaganzas in history. The panning camera caught one portly red-robed prelate picking his nose. Anothers jowls overhung his clerical collar as he took a quick power nap. Another, during the post-mass exiting procession, pulled off his ecclesiastical headgear and donned a New York Yankees baseball cap.
The weeks events symbolically spoke of the role of the Church throughout history. The grandeur and misery of humanness, the monumental strengths and appalling flaws of the institution, the majesty and coarseness, the grace and grime inherent in human enterprise.
Vicar of Christ, divinely designated head of the One True Church, infallible when he speaks on matters of faith and morals? On those matters most non-Roman Christians think he and his church are, well, mistaken.
But in that octogenarian son of a German police officer is gathered up the faith, hopes, devotion, and dedication of 65 million living people. That makes him very important indeed, and in this man in white, very graciously important.
Editor's note: W. Jackson "Jack" Wilson is a psychologist, an Episcopal priest, a sometime academic and a writer living in Colorado.
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