Background on Papacy: The Age of Faith

HERE'S THE SCORE - Teodoro C. Benigno -
The breadth, the sweep, the pageantry of Pope John Paul’s death have so mesmerized us, swept us to heights of exaltation we remain in a daze, unable to shake off the impact of this man and the Church he represents. The funeral ceremonies, the grandeur of St. Peter’s Cathedral, the awesome arrival in Rome of four million pilgrims from all over the world, the tears, the cheers, the paeans leave us breathless. For hours we stared at that ridiculously small yellow wooden coffin which contained the pontiff’s remains, wondering why it lay in such stark contrast with its rich, storied, majestic surroundings. Did he want it that way, because he was a pope of the people?

For hours, the Church of Rome, the teeming throngs atop St. Peter’s Square, the gorgeous basilica that Jesus Christ himself founded, gazed on that puny coffin.

Was that all? No, that was not all. For hours too, religious hymn, and the sweet, haunting, aching stab of spiritual melody rolled all over that massive congregation, some weeping, some praying, some striding in song, broken only when some church eminentoes led by Cardinal Ratzinger evoked the man, his saintliness, his supreme sacrifice of self, his life as a young man before Carol Wojtyla blossomed to a greatness probably not ever achieved by any other pope. He had a broken, shattered body when he died. And we will never know if John Paul II ever asked God to end his life because he had suffered so much.

And yet it is at this juncture that must ponder.

There are contrasts that we cannot understand. The Church of Rome commands the fealty of only 1.1 billion Catholics out of a world population of about 6 billion. Why did virtually whole world sit up, then stand in rapt and perhaps admiring attention weeks before he died? When he died? Even at his funeral, you saw robed Arab potentates, Muslims mingling with President George W. Bush, his father, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair. What drew them to Rome and the Vatican when just generations and of course centuries ago, they cursed Christendom and would bury some popes in horse dung?

In a century when China, India, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, yes the world of Araby and the Middle East seek reentry into their own religious citadels, and in the main consider the Church of Rome their present and future ideological enemy, and Islam would seek to hold up one-half of the sky, why this quickening to the person of John Paul II?  For believe you me, if he were any other pope, John Paul II would not enthrall the world the way he did and does. What is it about him then? Is it the white uncreased   garments of the Universal Man? A superman in soutana? The world’s grief and suffering encased by his bent body, yet breathing cheer, breathing universal brotherhood, breathing God’s love?

Most certainly.

Probably like basketball’s Michael Jordan, he was let loose by the electronic Fates in a wired communications world where a voracious media covered his every move 24 hours daily, and both soared by the magic of fiber optic to the attention of a world audience. It was an audience that sought respite and pleasure in Jordan with his basketball wizardry and spiritual solace and unbounded awe in the John Paul II with his constant heroic rendezvous with death. For it is a fact that Michael Jordan was the first great athlete to whirl around the world the way he did, TV on the catch-catch, and so did Pope John Paul II with his face drawn from Gethsemane and a bleeding cross of thorns.

At this juncture, I believe, we should draw from the history of the Papacy, its ups and downs, the great popes, to a time when the Western World was bathed only by the light of the Roman faith.

And we must ask the same question that the historian Will Durant did: Why did Western Europe build so many churches in the three centuries after 1000?  What need was there, in Europe with hardly a fifth of its present population, for temples so vast that they are now rarely filled even on the holiest days? We find out that construction was largely financed by the accumulated funds of the Episcopal See, and solicited gifts from kings, nobles, communes, guilds, parishes and individuals. Such riches!

Yes, there were great popes in the past. One of the greatest was Gregory the Great (540-604). Pope Gregory’s dialogues, relates Will Durant, "were loved by the people because they offered as history the most amazing titles of the visions, prophecies, and miracles of Italy’s holy men. Here the reader learned of massive boulders moved by prayer of a saint who could make himself invisible, of poisons rendered harmless by the sign of the cross, of the sick made whole and restored to life…The Christianity of the masses had captured the mind or pen of the great Pope."

More about Gregory:  "He was in will and action a Roman of the ancient cast, tenuous of purpose, stern of judgment, prudent and practical, in love with discipline and law…He built the moral power of the papacy, freed it from imperial domination, and administered it with such wisdom and integrity that men would look to the papacy as a rock of refuge through tempestuous centuries. His fateful successors canonized him and an enduring postery called him "Gregory the Great.""  Now they are also saying John Paul II would be christened The Great.

There are startling similarities as there are differences.

John Paul II entered the portals of all faiths, was the first to undertake a state visit to Israel, also the first to pray in a Muslim synagogue. On the other hand, Pope Gregory preached the religion of terror. "That world, darkened men’s minds for centuries; he accepted all the miracles of popular legend, all the magical efficacy of relics, images and formulas; he lived in a world haunted with angels, demons, wizards and ghosts. All sense of a rational order in the universe had departed from him. It was a world in which science was impossible." He must have been a terrifying pope.

Ah, but he had a piety that rivaled Carol Wojtyla’s, a sense of divine mission, a humility that was Pope Augustine’s, and also like Augustine, "Gregory comforted those he had terrified by reminding them of the gift of God’s grace, the intercession of the saints, the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice, the mysterious saving effect of sacraments available to all Christian penitents."

Pope Gregory dominated the end of the sixth century as Justinian dominated its beginning "and his effect on religion was exceeded in this epoch only by that of Mohammed." Mohammed! The world then was as different from today as night versus day. It was a wicked, sinful world and we shall shortly see that the Vicars themselves were prone to sickness, error, sin and defeat. And the Romans came to view the papacy not as a fortress of order and a tower of salvation, but as a collection agency whereby the pence of Europe might provide the dole of Rome." Now hear this:

"The rulers of Spoleto, Benevento, Naples and Tuscany and the aristocracy of Rome divided into factions as of old. And whichever faction prevailed in the city intrigued to sway and choose the pope. Between them, they dragged the papacy, in the tenth century, to the lowest level in history."

They shocked and they awed in the most perverse meaning of the term, to take alone the example of Pope John XII in 1962. Writes Durant: "He took bribes for consecrating bishops, made a boy of ten a bishop, committed adultery with his father’s concubine and incest with his father’s widow and her niece, and had made the papal palace a brothel. Another example was Pope Otto III who deposed Pope John, gouged out his eyes, cut off his tongue and nose, and paraded him through the streets of Rome on an ass, with his face to the tail."

I first read these abominations years ago in the chronicles of another famed historian Barbara Tuchman. They make you retch, they make you spin dizzily on a crazy gyroscope, tales twice told, ten times, a hundred times told of the years when the papacy was evil, wicked, inhuman, terribly deformed. And I recall all these with sadness, poignancy in tatters whose scars remain in my psyche. I could never imagine then the Church behaving no better than a bordello, its popes at the time sporting black naughty eye patches, and diving into the hay with unrestricted libido.

And so we’re back with John Paul II.

And we peer again at that puny wooden coffin. And we realize again, over and over again, that inside are the remains of one of the holiest of men, who bore his body as Jesus Christ bore his cross, and that is why we all rushed to his presence.  It is rare these days, these years, this centenary, that we encounter one like Carol Wojtyla, who willed himslef to be a saint while the rest of us continue to gambol like the sinners we all are.

Soon the College of Cardinals, in conclave, will elect a new pope. There is a lot of speculation as to who he will be, how close he will hew to the person and character of Pope John Paul II. Habenus papam! We have a pope! The cry will ring from the Vatican rooftops.  However they speculate, there will never, ever be another like this Pole from Krakow.











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