Reader’s Guide – Day 13

Pray for this Francis, here’s some of what faces him.

White smoke reported at 7:05 p.m. in Rome, 2:05 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. They have, we have a new pope. (My Pope Alarm application delivered 15 minutes later, at 2:20.)


Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, archbishop of Buenos Aires, who takes the name Francis. A Franciscan pope, perhaps, though not what some thought (pace, Boston). But a pope from the South, a pope from the New World, a pope from the Society of Jesus. Admajorem Dei gloriam inque hominum salutem, for the greater glory of God and salvation of man.

“Pray always for each other; let’s pray for the whole world,” he said.

A sensation in Rome and for Catholics generally, but we can imagine what the new pope might be feeling after accepting election. Pray for him.

Apparently, it was an election after five ballots.  We will know more when details leak.  In Italy, that may take a day or two.

The rest of my posting was written in advance and is largely topical and controversial material.  Consider that these are among the matters sitting on the new man’s desk. Alas, I have to move on to my night job; forgive me.

The smoke was black after two votes Wednesday morning, showing at least that after the confusion of 1978 and 2005, when the smoke was gray and uncertain, the Vatican has found a recipe. On his useful blog, John Thavis writes: “For black smoke the composition is potassium perchlorate, anthracene and sulphur. The recipe for white smoke is potassium chlorate, lactose and rosin (a natural amber resin made from conifers.)”

 Earlier, everyone was filing placeholder stories, as reporters waited with the throngs in St. Peter’s Square.  See The New York Times report.

The morning papers continued to speculate on favorite candidates, and in our country, especially on the outside chance of an American. Part was driven by news that Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Cardinal Timothy Dolan play well in bookmaker’s odds. Writing for the Daily Beast website, Christopher Dickey enthuses about O’Malley, recalling meeting him in the 1970s when the Franciscan monk was a community organizer in Washington, D.C.

The Italian enthusiasm for him, at least in the public at large, has more to do with the brown robe and the image of piety, which evokes the figure of Padre Pio.

In the United States, President Obama was asked about the possibility of an American and whether he or the pope would be taking o orders from the other. An American would do as well as a Pole or Italian, the president said. As for taking orders, CNN quoted him as saying: “I don't know if you've checked lately, but the Conference of Catholic bishops here in the US don't seem to be taking orders from me.”

There has been a spate of polls illustrating divisions between US Catholics -- many of them nominal Catholics, it must be acknowledged – and the official leadership of the church. On a blog for the Cable News Network, Stephen Prothero, who teaches religion at Boston University, talks of a Catholic student who told him she thought who is pope is irrelevant to most Catholics she knows. “I’m sure my student would echo the preference of the Catholic respondents in this poll for a pope who is more liberal and for a Church that isn’t so ‘out of touch,’ “ Prothero writes. “But global trends in Roman Catholicism offer little reason for such a pope. Theologically, the cardinals are a conservative lot, deeply committed to the notion that the Church is its leaders and that the other 99% of the Catholic world should get in line and follow. In the United States, at least, that is a recipe for yet another irrelevant pope.”

And the writer Gary Wills puts it still more bluntly in a blog for the New York Review of Books: It begins: “The next pope should be increasingly irrelevant, like the last two. The farther he floats up, away from the real religious life of Catholics, the more he will confirm his historical status as a monarch in a time when monarchs are no longer believable.” Wills aims his criticism at us in the press for retailing, especially in times like these, what he calls mythology: “With the election of a new pope, the press will repeat old myths, that Christ made Peter the first pope, and that there has been an ‘apostolic succession’ of popes from his time. Scholars, including great Catholic ones like Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitzmyer, have long known that Peter was no pope. He was not even a priest or a bishop, offices that did not exist in the first century. And there is no apostolic succession, just the twists and tangles of interrupted, multiple, and contested office holders. It is a rope of sand. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, for instance, there were three popes, none of whom would resign. A new council had to be called to start all over. It appointed Martin V, on condition that he call frequent councils, a condition he evaded after he was in power.”

There is fair criticism that the European and North American criticism of papal leadership and the bishops it has chosen dwells too much on questions of personal sexual morality and gender politics. Membership is shrinking where those questions are most prevalent, growing In the figurative south where the challenges are quite different. See the Economist magazine for a marketing and product-development assessment of the choices the conclave and its choice will face.

And the Library of Congress sponsored a lecture this week on the radically changed situation of Western Christianity. Visiting scholar Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. There is a video of the complete lecture and a link to a transcript of an address that assesses the challenges faced as “a post-Christian West encounters a non-Western church.”

The American theologian Charles E. Curran has an essay in the Houston Chronicle on changes needed to address the new environment in which the church must work. “The monarchical papacy with all power exercised only by the pope does not serve the church well in the 21st century,” Curran writes. “Everything comes from the top down. There is no flow from the local churches to the universal church. To give a greater role to local churches does not go against the proper role of the papacy, but it recognizes other governing and ruling functions existing in the life of the global church. In fact, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) proposed such a restructuring of the papacy. It emphasized the role of collegiality in the church. All the bishops of the world together with the pope have the responsibility not only for their own diocese but also for overseeing the life of the whole church. Every baptized Christian shares in the three-fold office of Jesus as priest, teacher, and ruler. All Catholics, therefore, have something to contribute to the life, functioning, and teaching of the church today. Unfortunately, the theoretical reforms proposed at Vatican II have not been put into practice in an effective way.”

John R. Quinn, retired archbishop of San Francisco and a former president of what was then the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, made what appears to be a similar point in a symposium after Benedict announced his resignation. The National Catholic Reporter wrote: “Quinn, who spoke as part of a daylong symposium, "The Legacy of Vatican II: Personal Reflections," at Stanford University, called for major decentralization of Vatican and papal authority. He said this could be achieved through the creation of regional bishops' conferences and synods of bishops with decision-making authority.” The full text of the speech is available on the NCR site. In part, Quinn situates those possible reforms in John Paul II’s discussion of ecumenical relations in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint.

We will post some more as coverage continues.

Odds and ends: Britain’s Catholic Truth Society has published a short book, “Conclave: Step by Step Through the Papal Interregnum,” by Monsignor Charles Burns, a priest who has long worked at the Vatican; a PDF document is available for download. That version includes the names of current incumbents of the offices mentioned. And going from the accurate to the farcical, see the presentation of current events by New York Magazine, “The Papal Conclave Explained in Reality TV Metaphors.” Since these are the terms by which many Americans understand reality, it is worth a glance.

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Bob Baker
5 years 10 months ago
I suppose CNN never commented to Mr. Prothero that he must not being doing such a good job teaching his students. It’s obvious that he hasn’t conveyed the Magisterium of the Church, nor its history and relevance of Church history. Anyone who has seen anything Mr. Wills has written or said lately (including America) knows that he is no longer Catholic. Charles Curran, really? He hasn’t been a Catholic theologian for the many years since he left CUA. Add his thoughts with former Archbishop Quinn and you would have us return to The Great Schism of the late-1300s/early-1400s and conciliarism. Instead of One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church (I’ll bet the BU and SMU students don’t know the Four Marks of the Church) we will have so many mini-churches that Catholicism will lose its identity (even more than some say it has already), Congratulations to our new pope and thank you Holy Spirit!
James Patrykus
5 years 10 months ago
The visual and aural affect of our new Pope is heartening. His past is yet to be examined in more detail. Trust that it will be in this age of media frenzy and world of few secrets. Whatever the controversies evolve into, I pray the church will live by the words of the First Universalist Church. "Love is the spirit of our church, and service is its law". I would add truth to that list. Long live John XXIII in our hearts.


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