Thursday, February 14, 2013

Traditional pope takes modern step

It's something the Benedictine nuns told me -- then told me again -- during my years in parochial school: The pope is the successor of St. Peter, the apostle Jesus singled out as the leader of his church.

“You are Peter,” Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, “and upon this rock, I will build my church.”

Well, by the time I went on to Jesuit high school, I had learned more about the world and history and the papacy.

And while I’m not saying I came to disbelieve this idea of Peter-as-the-first-pope, I sure could tell that Pope Paul VI – the pontiff during my growing up years – looked nothing like a humble fisherman.

A medieval king was more like it.

Like the monarchs of old, he wore royal garb, he had a Roman numeral behind his name, and he planned to rule until he drew his last breath.

All of those attributes applied to every pope I’d ever heard of.

So imagine my shock last Monday when, at 6:15 a.m., a stunningly loud CNN news alert on my iPhone woke me from a now-forgotten dream.

Pope Benedict XVI will resign Feb. 28,” it read.

“Resign?” I said out loud. “Popes don’t resign.”

You know the rest of the story: The 85-year-old pontiff is, indeed, giving up his throne – the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years.

I talked to a lot of Catholics in the hours after the news broke. And the comment that opened my eyes to the real significance of Benedict XVI’s decision came from the Rev. Frank O’Rourke, pastor at St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Charlotte.

In resigning, O’Rourke told me, the pope “recognizes that the papacy and the church are bigger than him. When he realized he didn’t have the stamina, he stepped down. It’s a good witness to leadership: It’s a leadership of service, not a leadership of power.”


Turns out Benedict, who seemed to be the ultimate traditionalist, had done something very modern.

I’m betting he was sending a signal to his flock that being pope is not about reigning, it’s about serving. And when you can no longer do that job, it’s time to let somebody else try.

It took grand humility for him to turn over the keys to the kingdom, er, the Vatican while he was still alive.

Maybe it’ll help convince his successor that, in the 21st century, maybe it’s time to get rid of all the royal trappings and the divine-right-of-kings mindset and, well, start acting more like a humble fisherman.

These last few days I’ve been thinking of that 1960s movie, starring Anthony Quinn, about a Russian archbishop who becomes pope. At his papal coronation, he removes his crown and announces that he plans to sell most of the church’s treasures to feed the world’s poor.

It’s called “The Shoes of the Fisherman.” But it reminded me not of Peter, but of his boss. In the Gospels, it was Jesus who told the rich man who wanted to follow him to first sell all he had and give it to the poor.

Now, wouldn’t that be leadership of service.

-- Tim Funk