Katy Burns: Habemus Papam Franciscum

Last modified: 4/3/2013 9:33:28 AM
The new Roman Catholic pope, Francis, is said to be humble. Not into ostentatious living. In Argentina he routinely took the bus rather than a limousine. Abandoned the archbishop’s mansion for a humble flat. Cooked his own dinner.

So maybe he’ll ditch those custom-made red leather shoes favored by his predecessor. And the ermine-lined cloaks. Not to mention some of the gaudier gold thread-encrusted cassocks and chasubles that traditionally adorn the papal personage as well as those in his entourage.

God knows today’s luxurious papal trappings are a far cry from the likely humble raiment of that itinerant preacher whose teachings two millennia ago gave birth to Christianity.

Of course, the liturgical vestments are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the splendor that’s been on display in Rome for the past few weeks as the world’s media descended on the Vatican to cover – indeed, to wallow in, as only today’s media can do – the spectacle of the election of a pope. The world watched with a mixture of awe and amusement, delighted with a respite from endless news of wars and natural disasters.

The Vatican does spectacle with the flair and panache of the British royal family – and with a longer tradition of it. Just the sight of the assembled cardinals (the “princes of the church”), most fairly rotund and all decked out in scarlet – “the cardinalatial color,” we were informed in one particularly detailed story – is in itself really something to behold.

The pageantry was most evident the last day of the drama, after a new pope had been elected. The closely choreographed ceremony that filled the square before St Peter’s Cathedral – especially the precision marching of the lavishly and colorfully uniformed Swiss Guards, relics of the centuries when the Pope was a temporal ruler as well as religious leader and reigned over much of modern-day Italy – was spectacular.

The press – and the people entranced with drama and intrigue – were especially lucky this time out. Because the incumbent pope didn’t die but merely retired, for the first time in some 600 years there was no pope to mourn, no funeral ceremonies to fill the time.

All those reporters, desperate to fill up the 24-hour news cycle that the whole world seems to be in now, were free to detail the idiosyncratic traditions surrounding the election. Nothing was too minor to escape scrutiny. We were treated to elaborate cut-away drawings of the portion of the Vatican, including the Sistine Chapel, where the dramatic conclave would play out. We saw pictures of the stoves involved in burning the ballots and wafting the smoke skyward. The colors, white or black, would be produced by chemicals, we were informed over and over.

Detailed lists of candidates were produced as handicappers talked about the Sweet Sistine and Vaticanologists filled in

their brackets. Other sports metaphors abounded, with one pundit referring to a particular cardinal as being in the pole position.

Since the Vatican is – or was – a leak-proof citadel and the papacy is often called the last absolute monarchy in the world, it was fascinating stuff indeed.

Hard times

But the times are not good for the Vatican and the small coterie of powerful men who run it. The Curia – the bureaucrats who run the machinery of the place – are determined to hold power, and other cardinals are just as determined to break it up. The political dramas and rivalries beneath the dome of St. Peter’s are legendary, putting our own secular political wars to shame.

And lately the stench of gross mismanagement and financial corruption has hung over the place, not that surprising in a long-entrenched, powerful bureaucracy.

Away from Rome, things are also something of a mess. While the Church is growing rapidly in Africa, in South America – where perhaps 40 percent of today’s Catholics live – it is in fierce competition with a raft of new evangelical religions whose membership rolls are exploding.

And in Europe, once the heart of the Church, and in North America, Catholicism is hurting. Churches are emptying of people, especially young people. Vocations to religious life are drastically down from their peaks, especially for women, and most Catholics – even those who attend church regularly – completely ignore Church teachings on a variety of issues, especially birth control and, to a lesser extent, abortion and gay rights.

Traditional Catholic dogma, in much of the northern hemisphere, is simply viewed as irrelevant even by those who still consider themselves Catholic. By some estimates, about a third of Catholics who grew up in this country have essentially left the Church altogether.

Only the immigration to the U.S. of Spanish-speaking Catholics keeps Church rosters from plunging as low as those in Europe.

Capping these woes is the growing revulsion, here and in Europe, over the Catholic clergy child sex abuse scandal and the role of the hierarchy in keeping it quiet for so many years as it bought off complainants and moved victimizers from place to place to prey anew.

And when angry and heartbroken congregants sought help, the Vatican tried to distract its critics by declaring war on American nuns, questioning their adherence to Church doctrine, ordering close supervision over them and generally disrespecting them.

Nuns established the nation’s Catholic schools, hospitals and social institutions while most bishops stayed comfortably ensconced in their rectories. Nuns, for most American Catholics, represent the best and most selfless side of the Church. They are not the villains.

For many good Catholics – and the body of the Church is made up of good and decent people – all this was the last straw, and more left the fold.

Too late?

Now there’s a new pope, presumably one untainted by the sex abuse scandals. And while he is in lockstep with his immediate predecessors on sexual issues – and while there is little belief he will tackle two huge issues for the institutional church’s future, clerical celibacy and the role of women in the 21st century Church – he is devoted to Catholicism’s long traditional emphasis on social justice and ministry to the poor and displaced. He may be able to stem the hemorrhage in America or Europe. Or it may be too late.

It is, I think, for my family.

My parents were, like their parents, Catholic. While neither burned with religious fervor, they were good, regular churchgoers and generous donors. They had five children, all reared in the Church. When Catholic schools were available, we attended them. Several of us attended Catholic colleges. One of us was, briefly, a Catholic sister. We relished the reforms brought by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. We were Catholic, period.

Today not one of us five is a practicing Catholic. The reasons are varied, but the re-calcification of the Church under John XXIII’s successors – especially the rigidly conservative John Paul II and Benedict XVI – played a significant role. Some of us are involved in other religions, some have abandoned organized religion altogether. A few are indifferent to the Catholic Church as represented by its hierarchy, a few openly hostile.

There are no Catholic grandchildren. None.

I suspect my family is not unique.



(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)




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