I want to get this into print before the cardinals go into the conclave, because this might help them in their decisions.
Last night I stayed up late reading Karl Rahner’s 1984 essay “Dream of the Church,” in which he is allowed to eavesdrop on a Vatican ecumenical meeting during which the pope assures our non-Catholic brethren that in the future the pope will be much more consultative before making infallible statements.
Rahner is heavy work, and he got me so wound-up that I needed to relax by replaying one of my favorite 1930s films, “The Prisoner of Zenda.” Here Ronald Coleman, a British gentleman deer-hunting in the forests of Slyvania, is accosted by two ambassadors who inform him that the Crown Prince of Slyvania, scheduled to be crowned the next day, had been kidnapped by brigands. Because Coleman looks just like the Prince, they implore him to be crowned king in his place and serve until the real king can be rescued. Because he is a gentleman, Coleman agrees, and following a magnificent sword duel with the villain Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., order is restored.
The next thing I remember is that I was in Rome, on a Vatican side street, when two men in black blindfolded me and dragged me to the Sistine Chapel where the new pope Cardinal Blifskitz of Waydownia had just been elected; but the news had thrown him into coma and he was now held in a secret room under medical care. But a million believers were assembled in St. Peter’s Square waiting for his appearance. They said that I looked just like him, and if I refused to play his role I would be sinning against the Holy Spirit, which is as bad as you can get. What could I say? They added one condition: I was in no circumstances to say anything infallible. I agreed; but if I was going to be pope I was also going to be myself.
So rather than dress up and wave from the window, I went down onto the front steps of St. Peter’s in my Land’s End blue jeans, blue shirt and Fordham tie, introduced myself as Pope Luke, because his Gospel best reflected my priorities: sharing the wealth, loving both our neighbors and strangers, and giving women power. I declared that the Third Vatican Council would open in a year, that the College of Cardinals would become two thirds laymen and women from all over the world, that silenced theologians were free to speak, and that priests who found the previous Mass translations more pastoral and prayerful were free to use them. I then circulated through the crowd shaking hands and invited people to a picnic of hot dogs, pasta carbonara, shrimp friend rice and paella after the Mass.
For the Mass there was no crown, no mitre, no long robes, no gold ring; the choir sang Mozart, Bach and “It’s Me O Lord, Standing In The Need of Prayer.” I reshuffled the curia with more laypersons, men and women, and set up commissions to prepare the Council’s agenda: meeting the needs of the poor by the re-distribution of resources and wealth; raising the quality of Catholic intellectual life; the fuller participation of women in the life and governance of the church. For the first four months I traveled one week each month, with only three or four aides, staying in rectories or religious houses in city neighborhoods. There would be no Yankee Stadium-like appearances, but I took afternoon walks in parks and talked to anyone who joined us. Then I used the media for open-ended discussions on news programs.
On summer weekends, when I got away to Castel Gandolfo and did a few laps in the pool or biked down to the sea coast to hit the waves, as I had done years before with a Jesuit friend, I got an idea. I decided to resign, I was still in good shape, but I was old. And I was tempted to make just one infallible proclamation. Nothing controversial, something everyone, particularly my generation, might enjoy. I would solemnly declare that Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Leonard Warren and Lily Pons were all in heaven singing in the choir; and I was pretty sure the Holy Spirit would go along.
Then suddenly it happened. The door of my office opened, and there was His Holiness Cardinal Blifskitz of Waydown looking tall and fit and a little bit like me. He had recovered, he said, and thanked me for all I had done, and assured me those were the very changes he had planned to make himself. And that the four Swiss Guards accompanying him would drive me immediately to the airport.
And then I woke up.