Today, Pope Benedict XVI leaves office. He has the sweetest retirement deal on the planet and the comfort of becoming fallible again. One can only imagine the burden in knowing that in all official decrees, you cannot make a mistake. Now, he can screw things up with the best of them. I doubt we will ever see our new pope emeritus, other than a wistful shot of his back, walking in the gardens of the residence.
But here we are popeless again. I remember the election of 2005 because I was teaching Sunday School at the time and we had such fun learning about the voting, the traditions, the lingo of the conclave. When Benedict was elected, my class and I felt like we were a real part of the process and I remember watching him take on the robes and speak to the assembled masses in St. Peter's Square. It was pretty thrilling. It meant that there was continuity to the Church and predictabilty to the process. The bells rang, everyone cheered, and there was a sense that things were taken care of, managed, handled.
There are certainly terrible things that have been long associated with the higher ranking clerics in the Catholic Church, cover-ups and criminal behavior. But even today, in this time of constant awareness of the failures of the priests and bishops who abuse children, Catholics want to know that the man behind the curtain is pulling some knobs and turning some wheels that will make sure the Church is still here tomorrow. And as much as we cry out for change in terms of the role of women or some flexibility in terms of who can lead the faithful, there is still something about the magical tradition of this one man we call the Holy Father.
So, I would love to see women in more prominent roles and I think that will come about in the not too distant future if only for the fact that so few young men are entering the priesthood. There are girl altar servers, women doing the readings on the altar, women serving Communion, and none of that was in practice when I was a child. It's easy to lament what has not yet occurred and to forget how far we've come. I would love to see married priests too and I see no down side if someone wants to devote themselves to both a secular and a religious life.
I am hopeful. I really don't need to see significant change from our next pope because over the course of my life, I have seen quite a bit, not the least of which is a Mass in English. But my sense is that we will not see much different in our new pope and I think that's OK too. There are programs in place now in the Church that teach you how to detect signs of child abuse. There are any number of safeguards that were not there in the past. I would be naive to think that would prevent it from ever happening again, but I am hopeful that the universal awareness of this dark, terrible past will make it very difficut to abuse children in the same way in the future.
I look forward to learning about our next pope. I hope he tweets. I want him to have a Facebook page. I would love to get weekly E-mails from him the way I do from Williams Sonoma. I hope he will be more transparent and visible than any of his predecessors and I want him to travel the world so we can watch him work. But at the same time, I love the magic and the mystery of this ancient Church. I have to admit it's the real reason I keep coming back.
Also posted on Open Salon.