The Pope’s continued presence in office teaches us some things we don’t necessarily want to learn.
I listened to my “favorite” radio talk show the other day. It’s the same one I wrote about last year, the show whose host considers himself an “expert” on Catholicism because he converted briefly in order to marry his now ex-wife. He’s the one who called the Pope “Carl Wojciehowicz,” apparently confusing him with the dimwitted detective on the 1970’s sitcom Barney Miller.
Well, he’s at it again. He thinks the Pope should resign. Yes, our resident authority on all things Catholic believes that it’s time for the Holy Father to step down. Why? Because it’s “bad PR” – it doesn’t “look good” to have such an aging, infirm man leading an enormous institution like the Catholic Church.
Normally, I wouldn’t think twice about the rantings of such an obviously ignorant person. But I’m bothered for one simple reason – he’s not the only person I’ve heard make this suggestion. Other people -- people I consider good, faithful Catholics -- have also suggested to me that they believe it’s time for the Holy Father to hand the reigns over to someone younger. They see John Paul II -- obviously old and infirm – and wonder if he is still “up to” the task. They believe the Church would look better and more in touch with the world with someone younger and more dynamic at the helm.
Of course, everyone is entitled to his own opinion. But it occurs to me that the people calling for the Pope’s resignation don’t really understand the Papacy. And they definitely don’t understand the phenomenon that is Pope John Paul II.
It’s natural for us, as Americans, to view to Papacy as primarily a political office. And what are politics about in post-Camelot America? Perception. Popularity. Polls. It’s not about what they’re doing. It’s about what they appear to be doing. They hire stylists and publicists and “image consultants” – all so that the public perceives them in some sort of culturally acceptable way. They’re simply trying to tap into popular culture and deliver what they believe that culture wants.
And our culture wants youth. Vigor. Sex appeal.
John Paul II obviously has none of those. He is an old and very sick man. He’s clearly suffering. When we see him in public, he doesn’t like he’s doing much of anything. His face lacks expression. He can barely speak. When I saw him in the spring of 2001, I though “If I felt like he looks like he feels, I’d just want to get out of here and climb into bed.” It’s hard to imaging him running a vast and complex institution like the Catholic Church.
But he is. Quite effectively, according to insiders close enough to know. His mind is still razor sharp. He still maintains his daily schedule. He gets up at some hideously early hour every morning, prays and celebrates Mass. He participates actively in the administration of the Church. He writes. He travels.
But he’s doing something else as well. He’s very deliberately teaching us something. He knows that our modern culture worships youth, health and beauty. Because of that, we tend to shun the sick and the elderly. We move them into homes where we don’t have to face their weakness and infirmity. We lobby for their “right” to die and get out of our way. We see no value in their experience and wisdom, and we certainly see no value in their suffering.
John Paul II is forcing us to face that which we try to avoid. He’s old. He’s sick. He’s suffering. And yet, he refuses to go away quietly. He still has something to offer us – his holiness, his wisdom, his incredibly gifted mind. In remaining in his office – and in the public eye – he reminds us that all of the elderly, the sick and the infirm have something to offer us. They aren’t “defectives” to be hidden out of sight. They are the image and likeness of God, living among us.
Which brings us to the deeper lesson of John Paul II. The papacy isn’t a political office. It is primarily a spiritual office. The Pope is an alter Christus. He is Christ’s presence on earth. What did Christ do? He suffered. He suffered because He loved. He gave Himself – down to the very last drop of blood – out of his all encompassing love and compassion for His people. Our redemption came, not just through His life, but through His suffering. Through Him, we find meaning in our own suffering. We can unite that suffering to His, and thus participate in His act of redemption.
That’s what John Paul II is doing. He knows there is work to be done. He wants to make the biggest difference he can, to bring as many of us to Christ as possible, before he passes on to his eternal reward. And so he continues to push himself, to spend himself down to the very last ounce of his strength – for us.
Personally, that’s the kind of guy I’d like to keep around as long as possible.