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The Conclave Without a Funeral

These past few weeks may be described as Ask A Catholic Who's Always Talking About Being Catholic, So She Probably Won't Get Pissed That You Asked. Can a Pope resign?  What do you call a Pope who is no longer a Pope?  Does he get to keep the shoes?

Some of the questions I knew the answer to ("I think we're supposed to call him 'His De-Popeness,' and on formal occasions, 'The Pope Formerly Known As The Pope") but others caught me completely off-guard, because, along with the rest of Catholicism, I had no idea.  Because this just doesn't happen. You and I are living in that rarest of times for the Catholic Church:  The opportunity to establish precedent.  We've had two thousand years to design the wedding invitations.  If there's anything the Church is good at, it's guest lists, Orders of Business, and the answer to "Well, what did we do the last time?"

Here's the thing: You can't slack when it comes to Popes and the matter of one Poping it up while his predecessor still lives.  We can't eff this up, because 1) as you may have noticed, we tend to take precedent kind of seriously. With the rate of speed change comes about in the Catholic Church, if we make this Pope replacement one huge FailBlog video, this could take hundreds of years to untangle. 2) Just like you don't want to get back together with an ex who answered your phone for you while you were sitting right there, we're really not in the mood to invite a schism.

If you've been following the coverage at all, you know that popes can indeed resign-- it's happened several times, the most recent occurrence to heal a schism.  And once because the occupant, Celestine V, a heartbreakingly simple and elderly hermit, just didn't want to do it anymore, because, as a Pope, he sucked.  He sucked in a different way from the Popes who had mistresses and ran the Vatican as an ATM.  He sucked by being completely and utterly not-there. (My favorite summation from Catholic Encyclopedia: "It is wonderful how many serious mistakes the simple old man crowded into five short months.")  

In one of life's Sycnchronocities of the Weird, I just read a book about Celestine V, one of the first Popes to lay down the miter. He didn't want to be Pope so badly that when a contingent of cardinals showed up at his mountain shack to escort him to Rome, he sprinted into the forest.  With zero background in anything remotely human resources-related, he gave anybody anything they wanted and was easily controlled by warring families and factions within the Vatican. And so after a few months, he resigned.  And was shut up in a tower to die by his successor.

How, then, was he elected?  Pietro di Morrone (as he was originally known) was renowned as a wise ascetic-teacher and deeply holy man. As the Cardinals met to elect their new leader, Pietro sent down from his mountaintop a withering letter which basically read as, "You guys, I heard about how it took you two years and the peasants of Rome locking the doors and then ripping the roof off to get you to elect a Pope.  Stop being a-holes."  And so the cardinals were all, "You know what?  He's right!  We are a-holes!" So they elected him and promptly went right back to being a-holes.

Dante placed Celestine V in one of the inner rings of hell, some scholars say, for his failure to rise up to the office ("I saw and recognized the shade of him/Who by his cowardice made the great refusal.")  But now, for his holiness and monastic teachings, Celestine V is venerated as a saint. 

And this is where Pope Benedict XVI comes in.

I was startled to read that B16 had visited Celestine V's grave in 2010, at the end of the "Celestine Year" he'd declared, leaving behind his pallium, the white woolen vestment he'd taken between two fingers in the homily at his Inauguration Mass, explaining its potent and symbolic authority. He knew well that many, many Catholics were little babies or not even born the last time this Mass took place, and so we required the history lesson.

Like Celestine, Joseph Ratzinger did not want the job, and, as he opened the Mass before the conclave which elected him, delivered a rather scathing sermon which pretty much let them know it.  It wasn't a political, conciliatory "You guys! You're my guys and I love you guys!" kind of homily.  The man was not campaigning: "To have a clear faith, according to the creed of the Church, is often labeled as fundamentalism," he said, "while relativism, that is, allowing oneself to be carried about with every wind of 'doctrine,' seems to be the only attitude that is fashionable. A dictatorship of relativism is being constituted that recognizes nothing as absolute and which only leaves the 'I' and its whims as the ultimate measure."  He knew he was in the running; he was also letting them know that if he was chosen, he would not serve as Pope GetAlongGang I. He was elected anyway. And quickly.

The room in which a newly elected pontiff dresses to meet the throng at St. Peter's is called "The Room of Tears," for, it is said, as he sees himself arrayed for the first time in the white cassock and cap, the reality of his new position, the crushing weight of responsibility for millions of souls, settles upon him, and he weeps.  If that's true, and if the suddenly former Joseph Ratzinger wept, he must have well and truly sobbed.  He did not want to be the Pope.  He told them he did not want to be Pope.  He didn't ask for this.  He'd already tried to retire years ago, but The Deuce, perhaps already seeing his successor in his old friend, wouldn't let him.  He wanted to return quietly home to Bavaria, play the piano, read and write with a kitty cat by his side, and hang out with his brother--also a priest-- swapping tales of Vatican II and the good days with The Deuce.  But here he was facing the white cassock, the cardinals standing by to receive his new name.

An admirer of Benedict XV and St. Benedict of Norcia, not to mention the Benedictine Celestine V, he told them.

And, like so many exhausted moms who wipe runny noses and dads who arise at 4:30 AM to clock into a hated, nowhere job and undiscovered opera stars whose gorgeous voices perform little but the list of the daily specials, Benedict XVI pushed into a chapter of his life he may not have particularly wished for, but was called to anyway. He stepped out onto the balcony, and he waved, his arms already cradled in the practiced lifting motion a Pope uses to bless a multitude. The people climbed the lamposts of St. Peter's Square, struggling to see him without the aid of the giant TV screen, and cried "Viva Papa!"

But unlike Celestine V, Joseph Ratzinger was a man well-travelled and well-versed.  He'd made his name as a teacher, a learned theologian, "God's Rottweiler."  He did not sparkle before cameras as did his predecessor, for, as some commentators have yet to discover, he is not, in fact, John Paul III. 

The secular press's coverage has a full-stop, obituary-ready-to-go feel to it, as though this were the end of the story.  Particularly infuriating are commentaries such the one which blared that B16 "didn't stand a chance," that he wasn't telegenic, that he wasn't a natural communicator, or manager, and so on and so on and so on. 

If he "didn't stand a chance", it is perhaps that he was never given a fair one-- we should now elect Popes on their ability to make eye contact with the camera, who have MBA's, and judge them on whether or not people are tempted into the creation of Pope-Palpatine Instagram memes?  I am disappointed in certain outcomes of this papacy, but the man was who he was.  He did not pretend.  The theologian-teacher cardinal was a theologian-teacher Pope: I'm shocked.

I've been asked why this hasn't happened before, why a Pope who walks so painfully, who is half-blind, semi-deaf, and who cannot fly internationally has not stepped down before.  Here's the thing:  The Church has not necessarily been known to elect young men-- this was part of the shock when The Deuce was tapped--but we are now officially in an era in which the human life span has never before stretched so long for so many.  The footage of B16 at his election shows an old man; the footage of him stepping into his helicopter shows an old man much older now, wracked with torment.  But as the Italian Dean of the College of Cardinals thanked him with a phrase in his native German, he smiled like a boy.

Perhaps B16, having helped to uphold Blessed John Paul II's workload as he slowly degenerated, wanted those closest to him to avoid the same fate.  Perhaps he sees a horrific meltdown ahead and thinks a younger man more fit to meet it.  Perhaps he planned to do this long ago, as the pundits predicted "a staid and uneventful papacy, a breather after John Paul the Great, with no innovations," and so after eight years of appointing likeminded cardinals, he said, "So there" and singlehandedly instituted one of the most jawdropping innovations in a very long time.  Perhaps he experienced some sort of vision or inner locution we'll never truly know about.  Perhaps his lasting gift to the Church will be the modern, formal process of the resignation of a pontiff.  Perhaps it was all these things.  History, in its slow unfolding, will tell if we've been abandoned or rescued by this act.  

But the explanation which best serves the moment is this comment from a news article:  "Joseph Ratzinger is a brilliant and learned man. I guarantee you he did not pull this out of his ass."  I personally wouldn't blame him if he got up one morning in Feburary and said, "Screw it, I am not doing another eight-hour Easter Vigil."

In any case, he does not leave to a life of sandy beaches and the early bird special. The Pope retreats instead to a cloistered monastery within the Vatican where he will write and pray.  He will not appear in public.  He will not walk a red carpet to greet heads of state.  He will not ever again see the Bavaria in which he wanted to live out the rest of his life.

Today, the same bells that rang out the news of his election accompanied the whir of the helicoptor that took him from his quarters at the Vatican.  The Swiss Guard bolted the doors of His Holiness Benedict XVI Emeritus' new residence and took their leave, the people shouting  "Viva Papa!" down the corridor even as the doors swung shut.  He had left his pallium behind.


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