March 4, 2013
An Impossible Task?
Making Sense of the Modern Papacy
Pope John Paul II, pictured here during his 1979 visit to Catholic University, changed the papacy though his frequent travels.
In one of the more down-to-earth sections of his Rule of Benedict, the saint deals with a particularly difficult issue for any group working together that would be all the more sensitive for those living in the same place for life. It is Chapter 68: On Assigning an Impossible Task to a Monk.
My own sense is that the modern papacy may well be an impossible task, made more so, paradoxically, by the highly successful papacy of Pope John Paul II. He was, and was destined to be, a tough act to follow.
Yes, Pope Paul VI was the first Pope to travel internationally. I was a seminarian when he came to the United Nations in October 1965 and sang in the choir for the papal Mass at Yankee Stadium. But then came the frequent flyer, Pope John Paul II, whose trips were universally noted and acclaimed.
The Roman Catholic Church throughout the world is divided into dioceses and within dioceses into parishes. Catholics are always part of a local community, diocese and parish. When we say we belong to the Catholic and universal Church, we believe that we belong to all the local dioceses — including Rome — which together make up the universal Church.
Rather than from the bottom up or from the top down, Catholics belong to each other side-by-side in their local dioceses. Rome has a certain priority and emphasis. But the governance of the Church does not reside in Rome alone. It also belongs to bishops working together from around the whole world. The term we use is collegiality. We belong to a collegial church.
For a Pope to visit and teach and preach can be a special moment of grace. But it is a unique moment. It should not detract from the day-in day-out pastoral care given to that place by its bishop, clergy, and lay ministers. Technically speaking we are always the Church of God at a particular place, for example the Church of God at New York not of New York. It is always bigger than one particular place. But wherever the Church is in a particular place it is the entire Church at the same time. The pilgrim Church on earth sojourning in many particular places all at the same time.
Given the unprecedented advances in technology and the ability to travel long distances relatively easily, Pope John Paul II put the papacy “out there” in a unique and game-changing way.
But what happens to the papacy when a Pope travels for close to three decades and is in the media more frequently than one can imagine, not to say almost daily? What happens when a Pope can no longer do that? As happened toward the end of John Paul's papacy? Or what happens when a more introverted Pope is elected as the successor of St. Peter?
Or, to put it differently, might such a turn of events as a papal resignation cause the office of the papacy to refocus emphasis on local bishops and dioceses (which is where Catholics live their faith daily) and not look to the Pope exclusively for insight and direction?