Sunday, April 03, 2005

a few words about the Pope

It appears the Pope has died.

My own connections with Catholicism are long and deep. My father, a Presbyterian elder like me (but he's not potty-mouthed; he's a real elder), is an ex-Catholic. The rest of his family, way out on the West Coast, remains staunchly Catholic (as were my great aunt and uncle in New Jersey). I attended Catholic institutions for both undergrad and graduate school. Two of my three best friends in the States are affiliated (loosely) with the Church.

You're about to be bombarded by a ton of retrospectives, but I'll say this about the Pope: JP2, as he was known to students at Catholic University, wasn't a simple man to understand. It's not enough to say he was a traditionalist, nor is it enough to say he was "the Pope of Apologies," nor does it suffice to say he was a champion of interreligious dialogue. He was many things, not all of which will ever be clear to us. He was most assuredly a product of his times, having a special relationship with Jews and Judaism that was, unfortunately, obscured by various elements of Vatican bureaucracy. Although I disagreed with him about many of his convictions, in the end I respect him as a hard-working man of good intentions, and I hope he will be remembered rightly by both his supporters and his detractors.

As a Presbyterian, let me extend my sympathies to Catholics as the Church moves into a period of mourning. I also wish the Catholics the best as they prepare for the next major stage in the Church's journey: the selection of a new Pope.

Of the many things I learned about Catholicism while studying at CUA, perhaps the most important is that Catholicism, like any huge sociological phenomenon, cannot be judged cavalierly. Yes, the Church is in the thrall of an immense bureaucracy. Yes, the Church is big money; a short visit to St. Peter's Basilica will drive that point home. Yes, the Church has been complicit in some of the most horrific crimes committed by people against each other. But the Church isn't only this. For millions, it is a source and symbol of hope-- itself a sacramental reality. People have done many good things in the name of the Church; most of those people, and their deeds, go unacknowledged by the historians and journalists.

If religion is as it is practiced, then no given religion can be judged in a facile manner. I suspend judgement on the larger Church, but believe it has lost a good and honest man, whatever his faults. JP2 now goes to his reward; the Church finds itself in that mysterious liminal period as it moves once again from ending to beginning. I'll be hoping for the best.

POST SCRIPTUM: You praying types should fervently beseech the Good Lord not to allow Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to take over.


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