The international media are focused on a smokestack above the Sistine Chapel, waiting for white smoke to signal the election of a new pope. As usual, however, the media are looking at the Roman Catholic Church through the wrong end of the telescope.
The mystery and secrecy of the conclave are ideal for spawning the speculative frenzy that fills airtime. Which of the 115 cardinals disappearing behind the locked doors will emerge on the balcony to a thunderous ovation? Will he be a conservative or a liberal? A European, or perhaps a pope of a different color? A “traditionalist” like Pius XII, an “innovator” like John XXIII, a “rock star” like John Paul II or a “transitional” figure like Benedict XVI? What will his views be on (insert a controversial topic here)?
Such superficial chatter is mostly beside the point. The next pope is not going to inaugurate sweeping changes in the church’s moral teachings nor abandon its commitment to peace and justice. He’s not going to transform the church nor trigger its collapse. The last pope wasn’t the source of the daunting challenges facing the Catholic Church and Christians in the contemporary world, and the next pope won’t be the solution to them.
It obviously matters who the next pope will be. He is the single most visible “face” of Christianity in an increasingly secularized world. Yet the real drama of faith is unfolding in hundreds of millions of homes and hundreds of thousands of churches around the world.
Church politics are simply not that central to the lives of more than 1 billion Catholics. The Catholic Church is far more resilient, complex and diverse than can be seen through the eyes of the media. Scandals making headlines in Los Angeles go little-noticed by believers in Lagos, Nigeria — and vice versa.
The remarkable resignation of Benedict should have signaled a less “pope centric” view of the church. “Loving the church also means having to make difficult, trying choices,” he said of his decision, “having ever before oneself the good of the church and not one’s own.”
A thousand years ago, the institutional church was embroiled in turmoil similar to what we hear about today. Corruption tainted the church from within, and Islam threatened it from without. A passionate layman managed to win an audience with the formidable Pope Innocent III. The man we know as St. Francis of Assisi was seeking to create a brotherhood based on radical devotion to living the life of Christ. The pope was skeptical and sought to channel Francis’ energy into more conventional paths. Then Innocent had a dream of a “little man” shoring up the collapsing cathedral in Rome. He granted the request, trusting that Francis would “hold up Christ’s church by what he does and what he teaches.”
The pope was right. Francis and his followers sparked a profound renewal of faith, and hundreds of years later, the Franciscans established the missions that birthed what we know today as California.
Vatican II, the great Catholic Church council of 50 years ago, defined the church as “the People of God.” In “Lumen Gentium” (“Light of the Nations”), the term is used to specifically describe the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, but it also embraces other Christians as well as Jews. It spells out a broad and inclusive vision of the church, not just of ordained priests and hierarchy.
Much is made of papal infallibility, but “Lumen Gentium” underscores that “the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief.”
Christians believe that it is God who ultimately guides worldly affairs, a claim the secular media simply dismiss. Yet what can’t be dismissed is the reality that it is not the pope alone who will determine the future of the church. It is the “People of God” who will do that. We trust that whoever steps out onto that balcony believes that, and will lead accordingly.
Rick Cole is the parish administrator at the San Buenaventura Mission.