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This week is going to be interesting. The Catholic Church is electing an absolute monarch.

Those two terms might seem incapable of being said together; how does one elect an absolute monarch? Well, they do. Once a Pope is elected, his power in his realm, like all absolute monarchs, is unchecked.

What’s his realm? Well, there are several. He is the king of Vatican City, a free state that happens to be located inside of the city of Rome. But it IS it’s own little nation. He is also the king, or more correctly the Pater (father) of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. (Yahoo provides a great primer on the Pope and the traditions behind the papacy.)

And thanks to the doctrine of Papal infallibility, when the Pope speaks on matters of doctrine and faith, he is not and cannot be wrong. What he says is, according to Catholic teaching, bound in Heaven. He can’t tell you how good the Phillies are going to be this year, but essentially, he speaks with the voice of God on matters of faith.

So how will the new Pope be elected? It’s a process shrouded in secrecy, as the cardinals of voting age (younger than 80) are locked in the absolutely magnificent Sistine Chapel, painted by Michaelangelo (including, on one tile, The Creation of Adam), for prayer, reflection and voting until they agree on which of them will be the new pope. No cell phone, no aides, no real breaks until a new Pope emerges with the familiar white smoke and the cry of Habemus Papam. (MSNBC provides much more information on the process, and why it’s liable to be a difficult and strained proceeding. A list of all links can be found here.)

The history of Papal elections isn’t very neat. Nor is it clean. There’s a long history of riots, murder, revenge and vote rigging.

Why is this one so fraught with problems? Well, for one, this is the first time in 600 years that a Pope will meet his successor. It has been tradition that a Pope serves until his death. No Pope since 1415 has resigned, and none has left voluntarily since 1294, 719 years ago.

One leaves the papacy upon death, the tradition and customs of which are it’s own story entirely, from verifying his death with a silver hammer to smashing his Fisherman’s ring. (NPR provides a timeline of the death, funeral and interregnum of John Paul II and the conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI.)

For good reason, the church prefers not to have 2 Popes alive at the same time. In the past, it has produced schisms, or splits (the most famous being the Protestant Reformation that split the church in two), in the church that can have grave consequences. Right after 1400, there were three Popes. Gregory XII, the acknowledged Pope in Rome, resigned in 1415 to end the Great Western Schism.

Benedict, now formally Pope Emeritus, will have to be careful. Why? If a moderate Pope emerges and puts in place more modern policies (even though this is an extreme example, and it won’t happen, lets say the new Pope decides to ordain female priests), conservatives could turn to Benedict to protect their interests. What happens if two sides emerge, each with an infallible Pope, both heirs to the Throne of St. Peter, behind them? This issue hasn’t reared it’s head 600 years, and while that was a different time, the church is an organization with 2000 years of history.

For this reason, Pope Emeritus Benedict will be secreted away in a small apartment on the grounds of the Vatican. A prolific writer, he has said that he will not write again. In all likelihood, the next time he will be seen is when his body is shown at his funeral. His Fisherman’s ring, issued when he becomes Pope and used to seal documents, has already been destroyed, as usually happens after the death of a pope. He will continue to wear white, but in a nod to customs that go back centuries, he can no longer wear his famous red shoes. He cannot be seen in any way to threaten the power of the new Pope.

Making things more interesting are the doomsayers. From Saint Malachy of Ireland to Nostradamus, there have been predictions that this next pope will be the last. Are they right? Time will tell, but I’ll remind you that the Mayans didn’t take us out last December. But the picture at right of a bolt of lightning hitting Saint Peter’s Basilica the Day Benedict XVI resigned is pretty striking.

Looking for more? Of course you are. This is fascinating. How often do you get to bear witness to a tradition that dates back millennia? National Catholic Review has up-to-the-minute updates here.

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