Like all of you out there, I was stunned to hear of Pope Benedict XV’s announced retirement (in what amounts to be just a week from today, on February 28th).
I’m Catholic and grew up with Pope John Paul the Great in the Vatican…and didn’t “know” another Pope until after the installation of his successor; JPII was always “pope” in the entirety of my memory…and he was also the embodiment of the very forces of good in my mind. As a kid, I watched him, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan maneuver with expert skill to bring the Soviet Union to the ground and deal a powerful blow to Communism…liberating millions of oppressed souls in the process. I am very grateful that my childhood was spent with a real-life “Justice League” on the world stage…with Thatcher in London, Reagan in Washington, and JPII in Rome.
Honestly, I’ve always been torn regarding the election of a former member of the Hitler Youth to the papacy…regardless of however much pressure (and threat to life) he experienced back in Germany in his youth. I think a better and more modest man would have firmly told the College of Cardinals that it would be immensely inappropriate for someone who belonged to the Hitler Youth to lead the Church. This is the same sentiment I have always had towards people like Robert K. Byrd…who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth, but ran for the Senate anyway (claiming, “I had to do it” and “my life was in jeopardy and I had no choice”). That may very well have been true…but it doesn’t mean you should occupy a seat in the United States Senate. Replace Klan membership with “murdering a promising young woman” and you have the reason that I thought it was personally revolting that Ted Kennedy was a United States Senator…when that man belonged in self-imposed cloistered exile if not prison for the rest of his life. Instead, he too got to occupy a position of great power despite being party to great evil.
Years ago, I had a really terrific boyfriend name Joss who is Jewish (and lives in Israel now)…and I remember the absolute horror he felt when he heard that the Cardinal who was a former Hitler Youth had been elected the new Pope. It was, for him, an even worse feeling than November 3rd, 2008 and seeing a radical with deep ties to Marxism and anti-Americanism in general becoming the President of the United States. Nothing has felt right about this country since that happened…and I doubt it will be right again until 2017 when, at long last, the current President is out of office.
In March, however, this sense of unease and conflict I’ve had since 2005 will be over as Pope Benedict steps aside and enters cloistered retirement…in my own opinion, hopefully to never be seen or heard from again. I personally have felt that installing him as Pope was like choosing Emperor Palpatine from the Star Wars movies to follow John Paul the Great…and I don’t know for the life of me why they College of Cardinals made the decision they did.
In Catholic school, the nuns always taught us that there were many mysteries of the Church that were beyond our understanding and that we just had to have faith that the Holy Spirit saw to it that the right decisions were made, particularly when the new Pope was chosen. It’s a much more comforting and acceptable world when I convince myself to believe that…because otherwise the Vatican is just another political sea, with toothsome agendas whirling effortlessly below the surface.
With all my heart, I miss having a Pope in the Vatican who I love and respect and who it’s a joy to see waving from that balcony in the papal residence adjacent to St. Peter’s. My boyfriend Justin is aggressively Protestant…the kind that was taught growing up to mock Catholics and to revel in icon-toppling. His mother, CarolAnne, is vociferous about this sort of thing…which causes great strain in our relationship. Justin and his mother do the same thing to Queen Elizabeth II as well…and delight in mocking her too. I just don’t understand that, because it’s a pettiness and a negative energy that’s so out of place with who the two of them otherwise are. The net effect is that Justin always reminds me of one of those jawbreaker candies that’s sweet and adorable on the outside…but with this strangely sour center that comes out of nowhere.
When I was a senior in Catholic high school, I remember my religion teacher taking the last week of classes to teach all of us what to expect when we left for college…since most of us at my school had been educated in Catholic grade school since kindergarten, and then onto a Catholic high school as well. She told us that there would be those out there who’d take a weird delight in challenging us as Catholics…or in doing the mocking that Justin’s family from Arkansas gets into. I remember being specifically taught how to always remain the calm, collected, and even-keeled person when confronted this way…and I draw from those classes even now, twenty years later, when Justin and his mother decide it’s Catholic-bashing time.
I find such a power and sense of peace and comfort in the stained glass and candles and incense and ornate gothic glory of Catholicism. I am so grateful for all the nuns who taught me in school, and for the steadying and reliable force that belonging to a church brought to my life growing up. Recently, I used Google Earth to travel down memory lane to look at satellite images of my old neighborhood back in Cleveland…and my heart stopped and blood ran cold when I looked for my old parish and could no longer find it. I hadn’t been back to Cleveland in years, and wasn’t aware that the church had been shuttered and demolished in a bizarre fiat of the rightfully despised current Bishop of Cleveland. Seeing a barren, vacant lot where my childhood church once stood was an absolute shock to my system…like the Millennium Falcon happening upon an asteroid field where they expected to find the planet Alderaan in Star Wars.
I remember Justin just staring at me blankly as I literally had to steady myself on my chair and the edge of my desk because my legs gave out from underneath me when I realized that my old church had been wiped from the face of the planet and erased from our reality. It still existed perfectly in my memory, but even looking for photos of it online turned up just a snapshot or two. I felt compelled that very night to spend hours and hours drawing every detail I could remember and writing down every memory I could about the place…before I forgot it and the place was lost again.
It’s fascinating that Justin has never felt that way about any church he went to. They were just buildings to him, and when his family would move they’d go to another one…or a congregation would sell the building and buy a bigger one, or move into an old Zayre’s or Gold Circle department store and make that a “church”. He takes a lot of pride in the fact that he’s “not Catholic” and doesn’t have an emotional connection to “a building or things”. Bless his heart.
I have no desire to change him, but I also have zero interest in becoming like him. The more he’d try to push me to say something negative about being Catholic or feel bad about being so connected to my old parish the more it made me look for Latin masses to attend…and the more I found myself doing things like watching Sister Act on Netflix or ordering DVDs like The Mighty Macs.
But the one sticking point for me these last few years has been Pope Benedict XV, because in my heart and I soul I just have never liked this man and I have resented his presence in the Vatican. I pray for wisdom and grace enough to one day understand why he was chosen to lead for five years, when his history in the uniform of the Third Reich made him unfit in my eyes to ever attain leadership of the Church.
I pray his successor is someone of immense personality who will shine brightly in his role and so eclipse Benedict that he’s ultimately forgotten from history. I hope the next Pope is of a personality more magnanimous, humble, and endearing than even that of John Paul the Great.
And, truthfully, I really do hope they chose an African Pope. I feel it would be a brilliant strategy move against Islam in Africa…and would also be an interesting way of blunting the fawning over Barack Obama on the world stage…since the first black Pope will enthusiastically trump the first half-black American President.
I am truly glad that wiser men than I are going to be making a decision like this, because I’m too immersed in the secular battles of the moment to be able to know what’s truly best for the eternal Church. But I know what my heart wants and I’ve expressed it…as I have a right to do as an individual. No doubt you’ll have an opinion too, even if it’s like Justin and his mother who are all about “Down with all Popes!” or “down with everything people care about” or whatever it is they are saying after I judiciously chose to tune them out and go about whatever it was I was doing before CarolAnne called again on the phone.
It’s a little surprising to me that I actually don’t respect Pope Benedict in the slightest for “retiring”. I think this sets a very bad precedent and that he should have occupied the office until his death. The abdication of the Duke of Windsor rattled Britain and the reverberations are still being felt today. I have no idea how much damage Pope Benedict will do to the world as we know ti by stepping down like this…but it certainly will make it much easier for various forces to pressure a future Pope out of office, now that Benedict’s set a precedent for “retiring”. Six hundred years of tradition wiped away in an instant by a man who once marched around in a brown shirt for the honor of a genocidal lunatic.
It all sort of underlines the fact that I always believed this man was the wrong person for this role, and that he was fatally flawed…much like Robert K. Byrd and Ted Kennedy. Their past actions really did do something to them that other people were far too willing to overlook…and if you look at the entirety of these people’s lives you can really see that, NO, they really shouldn’t have been made Senators or the Pope (respectively)…because there was something wrong with them inside that caused them to make bad decisions at crucial junctures later. No amount of saying “they had to do it!” or “they had no choice!” or whatever ever mitigated the reality that these made were defective as a result of choices they indeed did make.
I can honestly go on about this for hours because it gets me so worked up…but I just realize that all of this negative energy and bad feelings will at last go far, far away at the end of this very month. One week from now, Benedict will leave the Vatican for obscurity…and someone else will be the pontiff.
I hope and pray it’s someone truly remarkable…but at the very least I hope it’s someone I can respect and come to love as a fighter for true good in the world and a person I can admire without reservation. It’s been eight years now since I’ve had that…and on a personal level I just can’t wait until the white smoke over the Vatican officially opens a new chapter for the world’s Catholics now that this difficult one is closing.
*** NOTE: I truly do respect all of your individual opinions on Pope Benedict XV. I know he has supporters who feel passionately about him. My intent is never to denigrate the man or the people who do feel inspired by him…but it really does boil down to me feeling towards him what I felt about Robert K. Byrd. I think that’s the best analogy, more so than Ted Kennedy (who was a murderer, and not just someone who joined the KKK to survive in the South or the Hitler Youth to stay alive in wartime Germany). I just have so much more respect for all the men and women who refused to have anything to do with the Klan or the Hitler Youth and who used their smarts and courage to find a way to live without having to surrender to evil like that. No one can ever say what they would have done in whatever period of history we’re talking about…but I just find it hard to believe I’d ever willingly be part of an organization of evil just because I was afraid of losing my own life if I didn’t join up. I just can’t be bullied like that…and I have trouble respecting those who allowed themselves to be.
© 2013, Kevin DuJan. All rights reserved.
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