Today is Pope Benedict XVI's last day on the throne of Peter. We now enter that time in Church history known as the sede vacante, when the office of the papacy is vacant. The conclave will soon be called and our Cardinals will elect a new Holy Father by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I have been doing my level best to avoid all news stories about the conclave. It is not because I wish to remain in ignorance, but no matter where I look, the journalists cannot help but put their two cents in regarding what we should have in a new Pontiff. Admittedly, most of the hard news anchors don't come out and give their advice, but they stack the deck with those pundits who are free with their own opinions that they believe the new pope should adopt.
But the Church is not a democracy. It never has been and it never will be. Even the election of the pope is not so much a democratic exercise as it is a method by which the Holy Spirit works through his chosen cardinals. If a cardinal campaigns for others to vote him in as pope, he will be automatically excommunicated I think we are too jaded by our modern politics to understand that the papal vote is not political And while history has shown that the cardinals have not always lived up to this ideal, it nevertheless remains a primarily spiritual affair.
And that doesn't stop anyone and everyone from sketching out their perfect pontiff that should be elected. For example Chris Matthews spoke of Pope Paul VI's pontificate "We got meat on Friday, we would rather have had birth control." Notice his absolute failure to understand the Church's moral teachings, as if the Pope had a bag of goodies to give out to his flock and chose to hand out corn-dogs, not condoms.
But people like Matthews can't help it. For them, the Church is not the Holy Body of Christ, but another international organization whose job it is to make people feel good. But the Church is not interested in making people feel good. We are interested in making them good.
From what I've been able to gather from our elites who know everything, the next pope should be from Africa because that would really stick it to the Europeans and prove that the Catholic Church isn't racist (to whom I don't know). He should also apologize profusely for causing the priest abuse scandal. And after that, he needs to give up the archaic prohibition on artificial contraception. This of course would also logically remove any impediment to blessing same-sex unions. He should also end sexism in the Church by reversing John Paul II's "infallible" decision on reserving priesthood for only men. And with more women in positions of power, the Church will no longer be opposed to a woman's right to choose. Once all of this occurs, we will finally get more people into the Church.
Of course this is the idol fashioned by those who do not want a pope. They want something else.
I must admit I am very spoiled in terms of popes. It was a great blessing to grow up under the pontificate of John Paul the Great. When he died, I felt a great deal of uncertainty. Not doubt, mind you, but trepidation that came with the unknown. And then Benedict XVI was elected and I was elated. He was one of the few cardinals with whom I was familiar. I knew him by his writings and his reputation and I was relieved. Here was a pope who was eminently wise, eminently caring, and eminently holy. Few men come into the Office of Peter with as much practical experience as he. When he announced his retirement, I was deeply saddened.
I began thinking of what I would like in a new pope. I began to think of someone like Cardinal Dolan. Here was someone from America who saw the world from that unique perspective of exceptionalism that is in very fabric of our nation. He is someone bold and outspoken, not one to mince words. I have always been attracted to people who "tell it like it is." He stands strong on the issues I care about. And he can relate to my every day life in a way that previous popes have not.
But while thinking about this, it occurred to me: am I not doing the exact same thing Chris Matthews is doing? To be sure, I am not looking for the next pope contradict basic Catholic moral teaching like Matthews is, but I sure as heck began shaping a perfect pope in my mind that conformed to my personal hopes and dreams.
And when I do that, I am fashioning an idol. I do not want a pope. I want something else.
What does it mean to have a pope? Why did Christ give Peter (of all people) the keys to the Kingdom of God? I say this with all respect and love. St. Peter is my all time favorite saint, not because of how powerful he was, but because he was the biggest screw up in the Bible. He always misunderstands Jesus, he loses faith on the waters and sinks, he tries to derail Christ from his mission (and is called "Satan" because of it), he cuts off someone's ear at the Mount of Olives, and he promises never to abandon Jesus but denies 3 times even knowing him.
This was our first pope.
If I were to choose a pope for Jesus, I would have chosen John. Sure he wanted Jesus to burn down a city because they were mean to him, but John was the Disciple whom Jesus loved. He was with Him from the beginning of His ministry, he laid his head against Christ's heart at the Last Supper, he was the only one of the 12 at the foot of the cross, and he took Mary into his care.
But Christ did not choose John. He chose Peter.
But notice what John does at the resurrection. When he and Peter run to the tomb, John gets there first, but he lets Peter be the first to enter. He defers to Peter. He follows Peter. He obeys Peter. That is why we have a pope.
I think most of us don't want a pope because we don't want to obey. We want the pope to be a reflection of our own idiosyncratic take on Catholicism. But we must bend.
I do not know who the next pope will be. I do not know if he will have a personality I like or don't like. I don't know if he will behave like John Paul and Benedict or like Sixtus IV and Clement V. I don't know if he will be American or African or European of Chinese.
But I know that I will obey him.
Obedience is key to our salvation. Obedience is the virtue of humility lived out. Christ made Himself obedient to St. Joseph, even though He was wiser, holier, and better in every way. But he obeyed and gave us a model of humility.
Christ calls us to be humble and obey. If we do not want to obey, they we do not want a pope. But we have to have a pope. Because we have to obey.
And we should not be worried about Chris Matthews and his like and their desires for a complete reversal of Catholic morality. Because it isn't going to happen. The Holy Spirit will choose our next pontiff. And he will be empowered by Him to safeguard to truths of the faith. Our next pope will not be John Paul the Great. Our next pope will not be Benedict the Wise. He will be his own man.
And he will be my pope.