Pope and circumstance

So today we have a Pope retiring at 85—citing weariness of mind and body, an inability to keep the regimen of the Office—and every news outlet has used words like shocking: It has “shocked” the Catholic church, nay the world; a “bombshell,” say the lathered media.

pope-benedict-xviWell, if there was one thing about the Catholic church that perennially irritated, and sometimes embarrassed Fr. James, it was the pomp and circumstance of it’s administrative centre; the puff and opulence; the flaunt and extravagance of the Vatican.

But perceptions and proportions are curious things. And I too am shocked, but only in this sense: What shocks me is the song of a winter wren—such grandeur and volume, all out of proportion to the size of its body. Conversely, what we have here is a rather fat and flightless bird, a massive bejewelled body (I speak of the Vatican), squeaking out a bit of everyday news. To wit: a man has reached old age and retired.

Well, there’s the history of it we’re told (or as Fr. James occasioned, the histrionics of it). In this case we have someone swinging out on a six-hundred year old batting record. But really, is this not more habit than something holy? Had it not dawned on previous Popes that their advancing age may be restricting their quill-finger flourishes, their Pope-mobile mobility? This isn’t ageism, its logic.

Or maybe it’s better to look at this as Benedict belting one out of the park. For it’s been suggested that his unprecedented move may enable other Popes to gamely retire before they cross the divide. This is progress.

Perhaps you take me for a Catholic basher. This is hardly the case. Although not a Catholic—citing reasons parallel to Simon Weil’s—I have long ago fallen in love with the beauty of Catholic liturgy, the subsequent heart-comprehensibility of matter made sacred, space cleared for transcendent connection, revealing those thin places where God shines through. This, the lives of many Catholic saints and other reasons I’ve outlined here over time, keep me following in my own way. And yet, there is that shadow that always threatens to undo.

What would genuinely be a bombshell, is when the Vatican takes steps to diet, downsize, move into the suburbs. When the Pope moves into a parsonage, I will be shocked.

I will be shocked when the edifice gives way and the Church (you may insert here some of the mega-Protestant/Evangelical churches as well) begins to take itself less seriously, therefore enabling itself to take human-heart issues more seriously. Perhaps then it may even consider things like having women for priests.

Only then will it discover lilies and sparrows again, only then will it learn to fly again. After all, it does claim to follow a vagrant.


  1. Thanks Ian. And of course your observation could be applied beyond the Catholic church. Catholics have a problem with ecclesiolatry, Protestants/Evangelicals have a problem with bibliolatry.

  2. “Protestants/Evangelicals have a problem with bibliolatry” is an interesting comment. I can’t think of anyone I know personally who has this problem yet I think you are referring to groups like the KJV-onlyists, snake-handlers, mega-churches, the Koran-burning pastor in Florida, and the Westboro Baptists. Correct me if I’m wrong.

  3. Ian, are you saying the Catholic church is guilty of idolizing their own traditions, and that you can’t think of any Protestants guilty of this?

  4. Thanks, Steve, insightful as it is entertaining. On institutions and systems – we create them in order to get things done, which they accomplish wonderfully, until they take over, and then we have to dismantle them. But after the dismantling comes another in its place, refreshing, new … until some time passes.

  5. Ian, obviously there are degrees here. But step back…consider that “sola scriptura” was the banner cry of all of Protestantism and think of the multitude, the continued proliferation of Christian denominations as a result.

  6. I’m saying I don’t personally know any KJV-onlyist, snake-handler, mega-church, Koran-burning or Westboro Baptist Protestants. “Sola Scriptura” is paradoxical because right there in the Bible it’s obvious that the written word is not the only way in which God is revealed to man. Therefore I reject Sola Scriptura.

    It sounds like Joseph “Emeritus Pope” Ratzinger just wanted to be free of papal responsibilities and have more time to read and meditate in his final years. He took a copy of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “Theological Aesthetics: A Model for Post-Critical Biblical Interpretation” for some light reading.


    As for the goal of ridding Protestantism of denominations, it’s certainly been attempted in Canada. The result was the radically liberal United Church. If I took a theological survey, I’d probably have more in common with Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy than the United Church.

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