Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Papal Resignations! X

Well, I’m back from my retreat and I am sorry for the hiatus in posting.  It was a great retreat—about sixty guys: a few priests, mostly laymen.  It ws strange, I had thought I would miss being away with all the excitement about the new pope.  But then I found out that there isn’t a lot of excitement about a new pope.  When I left for the retreat, Benedict was still in the Vatican.  We were very much aware of his retirement on the retreat.  We didn’t have television or newspapers, so there were no pictures.  But at every Mass and prayer service someone or other offered a prayer for the retired pope.  Some expressed a feeling of solidarity with Benedict who was, in his own way, on retreat also.  Most of the time someone would offer a prayer that the Holy Spirit would guide the Cardinals.  But that was it.  No one talked about the impending election or the pope’s retirement at meals.  In the evening socials no one brought it up.  There was a question and answer box for the retreat directors to take questions, but for all the questions men had, none of them were about the pope (old or new) or the conclave.  It was a great retreat and we had a lot of great stuff about spirituality in the everyday world and about the role of scripture in our lives and Christian manhood stuff.  And no one seemed particularly interested in who the new pope might be.
So when I got home on Monday and looked at the papers and turned on the television I saw that this pope thing is page seven news and all of 60 seconds of cardinals walking into the Vatican on the national news.  I remember the conclaves of 1958 and 1963 when Life Magazine had special editions and color photo spreads for the three or four weeks from the death of a pope until the coronation of a new one.  I remember the 1978 elections and how energizing it all was as Catholics wondered who our new leader would be—and how stunned we were in the second conclave when we got a non-Italian.  I was living in Rome during the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict—and was kept running from CNN to ABC to BBC to RTE and a dozen other networks as the networks were doing coverage without breaks of the various processes that kick in when a pope dies and the Church needs to choose a new chief shepherd.
Of course the problem may be that we haven’t seen a pope die and the consequent papal funeral.  Benedict’s resignation was somewhat anti-climactic.  A wave, a helicopter, and into a self-imposed oblivion—this wasn’t nearly as dramatic as Swiss Guards and Cardinals in red robes and a body being carried around in an open bier.  You just have to admit it; a funeral makes for great T.V. But I think the problem is much deeper—and with more dire consequences than that Benedict chose simply to walk away instead of being carried out.  We need to “read the signs of the times” and see that the papacy has been for some years now sliding into irrelevancy for most Catholics—even good Catholics. 
I have long noted that Americans have never had any particularly loyalty to their bishop.    Americans don’t understand bishops.  In the years after our Revolution, there was opposition—even in Catholic circles—to allowing bishops in the United States.  Bishops were associated with monarchy and the ancien regime.  The American religious tradition is Congregationalism.  When Americans talk about Church they understand their congregation, for Catholics, our parish.  Fortunately when we got our first American Bishop, John Carroll, he was himself a Son of the American Revolution and was careful to avoid the European style of prince bishops.  (Would that many of our contemporary bishops were so savvy.)    While bishops and dioceses have always remained somewhat of an enigma to Americans, with the papacy achieving an increased international prestige in the nineteenth century American Catholics embraced loyalty to the Holy See.  Thus when I was growing up—and I think until quite recently, while American Catholics didn’t know what to make of their local bishop, they had loyalty to their parish and to the Pope.  Over the last twenty years, the bishops certainly squandered what little influence they had in the lives of the faithful, but the papacy stayed strong as the popular outpouring at the death of John Paul demonstrated.  Now that seems to be greatly diminished.
The clergy had better take note and make appropriate course corrections.  The local parish is the last point of contact that many Catholics have with their Church.  The Church is hemorrhaging members.  Parishes need to retrench and strengthen the loyalty of their congregants to our Catholic heritage.  Declining Church attendance is a serious symptom that Catholicism’s future is bleak but the parish is the last firebreak to protect our society from the vacuous secularism that is eating out our culture and society from within.     

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