Jewish World Review April 22, 2005 / 13 Nisan 5765
Waiting for the new pope to be announced, this old reprobate thought of a separate but opposite faith that was the Church's long-time rival before it was ignominiously vanquished: Soviet communism.
The comparison may offend the more rigorous members of both persuasions, though I'm unlikely to hear from any remaining fans of Marxist statism; they've dwindled to a precious few except on American college campuses. But the similarities were hard to miss Tuesday for those of us of a certain age, who remember when the newest Chairman of the Central Committee was introduced with much the same solemnity. And a good deal more dread.
For example: There was the same unoccupied balcony waiting to be filled with a paternal visage, even if it was in Red Square instead of at St. Peter's; the same mix of expectation and anticlimax when the steady apparatchik got the nod over some dark horse; the same official commentary that airbrushed away any private doubts; and finally the same kind of savvy experts offering diametrically different interpretations of what it all meant.
Just what manner of man is the new pope? He's a 78-year-old scholar with a steely mind who headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith approximately forever, keeping a wary eye out for any tendency to stray from orthodoxy. He's also the veteran administrator who's held all the strings of the Curia in his hands for what seems like ages. Choosing him as the new pope is like, well, like choosing the old one. He's been running the shop for some time now.
Whoever this 16th Benedict turns out to be, whether the old Josef Cardinal Ratzinger or a whole new surprising incarnation, it's a good bet he won't be a John Paul II or John XXIII, the two great openers of the church this past century. As keeper of the church's doctrinal purity, he always seemed on the wary defensive, alert to any dangerous slippage from within the church, whether Western heresies or Eastern laxity.
It was left to the pope he served to reach out, to travel everywhere he could to embrace the future. John Paul gave the church and Christianity in general a very human face. He was the Polish pope a novelty and hope, solid rock and loving father, the peripatetic pope. Seldom had the church seemed . . . so folksy, so young, and so approachable. This new pope brings a different, sterner face of the church into view. Like some of those dusty portraits in the recesses of the Vatican.
For now the church seems to have chosen a holding pattern rather than a new departure. As if it felt the time had come to absorb and solidify the changes that have transformed an ancient institution in recent decades.
From the outside looking in, this new pope seems to represent the safe choice, the steady if not retrograde course. But now we see only as through a glass darkly. Wouldn't it be something if this new pope let his light and the church's shine anew? It's happened before, and not long ago.
After all, Cardinal Ratzinger isn't Cardinal Ratzinger anymore; he's a new man, Pope Benedict XVI. And isn't the essence of the Christian faith that a man can be, that a man must be, born again?
End of idle speculation, which can be fun. It can also be a worrisome pastime. For the election of this pope raises the question: Is a great, hopeful era ending?
The health of the church in recent decades has been the health of freedom, of the West, of learning and of tolerance, all of which a renewed church championed. In the telescoping effect that the passage of time has, the dynamic papacies of John XXIII and John Paul II begin to seem one in their transforming power, their openness and outreach.
The ascension of a new pope perhaps all too well known is bound to create a certain anxiety beneath the waves of official celebration. A world that has grown accustomed to surprises from the church may find this pope all too predictable. That is the worry.
The hope lies in a comparison with the selection process of another secular and quintessentially American institution, the Supreme Court of the United States. Many a nominee to that court has been confidently tagged as conservative or liberal, moderate or radical, this or that, when first confirmed only to astound by taking his own, independent course, led only by his own conviction and devotion to duty. That kind of transformation will make a believer of you.
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