IN APRIL 2005 my turn for Thought for the Week came round as an old Pope died and a new one was being elected. And now, eight years on, here we go again.
Last week’s media were clamouring with the news. Sunday’s papers furthered the analysis and prediction.
And, already, if you’re a betting person, the bookies have given the odds for the likely candidates.
But it’s different this time. The ‘new’ Pope of 2005, Benedict XVI, hasn’t died. He’s announced that he’ll resign in a few days time.
It’s surprising and a bit puzzling that a change of Pope gets the headlines and mass coverage of a world event. Organised religion hasn’t been receiving an altogether favourable press of late. In many circles faith is scarcely fashionable, certainly not cool; and church-going is a minority activity.
Yet, Pope Benedict’s sudden resignation captures the attention and curiosity of the secular world, and spills into speculation about his successor. And I welcome the fact that in the next few weeks, friends and acquaintances, of many faiths and none, will be quizzing me about the outcome.
What I suggested in 2005 still makes sense. The election of a Pope is of most interest to Roman Catholics. He assumes the earthly headship of their worldwide church. He’ll be burdened with their dreams, hopes, sufferings and, at times, even their lives. Sadly, too, he’ll be a victim of their mistaken beliefs, almost superstitions, about what a Pope can and can’t do, should and shouldn’t do.
In recognising the Pope’s role and legitimate authority, Catholics sometimes want to give him too much authority, and thus belittle their own role and authority as baptised Christian believers.
All religions constantly need to guard against this tendency to accept authority uncritically - be it authority of a person, a clerical rank or a holy book. And not just religious people. In politics there is also too much uncritical acceptance of authority. As citizens of a democracy we are easily lazy and comfort-seeking.
In the visionary manner of his shock resignation Pope Benedict gave an important sign.
As he said, “In full freedom”, he laid to rest the unchallenged notion of centuries that a Pope never resigns. It was an assumption that too readily encourages the building of a personality cult around Popes.
For a Pope it is enough to be “The servant of the servants of God” - and of all the human family.