Pontificating

Pope John Paul II monumentSo, that one caught us all by surprise didn’t it? I did not hear of anyone who was claiming credit for predicting that the Pope would be resigning yesterday, nor that he would announce his resignation in Latin! I don’t want to get too side-tracked by this, but I wondered what the Latin word for ‘resign’ is… Google Translate tells me it is ‘abdicare’, which makes sense. It certainly sounds better than ‘concludicus’, which was my guess.

As a non-Catholic I watched yesterday’s news reporting about Pope Benedict’s resignation with a certain amount of detachment. When we are told that our country is increasingly a secular society, the resignation of the Pope might be expected to be lower down the running order in the news. According to the BBC website there are apparently about 5 million Catholics in this country, although less than 1 million of them seem to attend Mass regularly – about 1.5% of the population. There are apparently over 1 billion Catholics on the planet, which makes them a much higher percentage of the world population (15% or so) so I guess in terms of the impact of the news on a significant number of people it is newsworthy*.

I first came across the news on social media and I wondered initially whether it was a joke. Then I wondered if the Pope had been tweeting and the predictive text on his phone had sent the wrong message. But it soon became clear that this is indeed happening. In two weeks’ time he will be an Ex-Benedict.

Because this has not happened for hundreds of years there are many questions: will we have to come up with new language to describe him –  will he be ‘expontificus’? Will he be like US Presidents and still keep the title even though he is no longer in office? Will he retain the name ‘Benedict’ or revert to Razinger?Where will he be living? What are his plans for retirement (I can’t imagine him playing golf)? And how will his successor cope as pope knowing that it is possible that people will go and ask the former pope what he thinks of any controversial plans?

But I think the thing that was most significant for me was when a reporter told a Catholic woman in the street outside a Catholic Cathedral and she was visibly shocked. It is the ordinary people in the street and the pews who have looked to the Pope for vision and leadership who will perhaps be most affected by this. On a much smaller scale, I imagine it is a bit like when a minister or vicar announces to their church that they are leaving to go to a new church, or retiring unexpectedly. The people in the pew are affected by a change in leadership, but need to be reassured that God’s plan and purpose does not depend on any particular leader.

In our evening services at the moment we are exploring the early chapters of Acts: the beginning of the Church (used in it’s correct sense here); the moments when Peter started to fulfil the commission Jesus gave him (and which Popes claim to receive in direct succession from him as Bishop of Rome). The book title is often ‘The Acts of the Apostles’, which puts a lot of focus on these fallible people who seemed at times to be making it up as they went along. I think that it should be called ‘The Acts of God’, which then reassures us that God had a plan and we can be amused, delighted, impressed and inspired at how God helped the Apostles to work out what he wanted them to do.

The Acts of God are still being written today. Leaders will come and leaders will go, but Jesus remains the same and the Church that bears his name will remain. God’s plan will still be fulfilled through it. Our task as leaders is, with God’s help, to try to help the individual people on the street and in the pew to fulfil their part in God’s mission calling – so that we can all be good free samples of Jesus wherever we are – Colchester, Daventry (not sure where that came from in my subconscious!), Croatia, Vatican City… we all have the same mission calling regardless of what we do and who we are, regardless of whether we are active in employment or have announced that we are abdicandae.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*and yes there was still some sloppy reporting of what was happening to ‘the Church’, assuming that it was all Christians, rather than ‘Roman Catholic Church’. This is something that is commonplace and will probably continue to happen, but I am making a small Reformation-style protest about it here [sfx: sound of hammering a nail into a door].

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