Sunday, 3 March 2013

Sede Vacante: Who Wants To Be Pope?

A couple of years ago, I watched Pope Benedict XVI roam around the St. Peter's Square in the Vatican City while thousands of Catholics waved and called his name. He was riding his 'pope mobile' and his bodyguards walked speedily by it. This was during the weekly general audience with him. As he passed me, I could see that he was trying to force a smile as he raised his arms to bless the international pilgrims. From the way his face looked, I realized that this octogenarian, the successor of Saint Peter, had only a few years left in him. He looked weak and tired.
                                    (Pope Benedict XVI)

And yesterday, as I watched CNN's coverage of his departure from the Vatican City on board a white helicopter, I thought that his decision might have been for the good of the Roman Catholic Church, an organization he might have felt was getting too difficult for him to rule. Citing old age, he just gave up as its CEO.

And today, the sede vacante (the seat is vacant) continues. This is the period when the Roman Catholic has no pope and no leader. It ends when a new pope is elected. So, today, like the rest of the 1.18 billion Catholics around the world (according to the Pontifical Yearbook), I have no Pope.

Yes, I am a Catholic like most Filipinos. I was baptized a Catholic and raised a Catholic. Some Catholics boast of being baptized a week or two after their birth. How about three days for me? I'm not sure if my father secretly snuck me out of the hospital, or politely borrowed me for an hour from the nurses with the promise of returning the same baby boy, but with a baptismal certificate this time! He then brought me to a cathedral. It wasn't just a chapel nor a parish church, but a cathedral, no less!  And at my baptism, my father, my lola (grandmother), and my own set of the traditional maninoys (godfathers) and maninays (godmothers) finally carried out my mother's instructions that I be baptized immediately; she was still in the hospital that day recovering from giving life to her first-born. She had her son named after a saint, by the way. No wonder the baptism had to be in a cathedral! I wonder what would have been had there been a basilica on the island.

I went to Catholic schools, too. All throughout grade school, high school and college, there were always chapters from the Bible to study, the Holy Mass to attend, Holy Rosaries to say and church feasts to celebrate. And during the Mass at school, it would either be singing in the choir, serving at the altar, or doing the reading.  My classmates and I must have had attended too many a Holy Mass that we could recite from memory the liturgy and those prayers, including all the hymns!  I guess we were so holy already that if it were not for our countless mischief, rowdiness and not being able to properly name the 12 apostles, most of us would have been a martyrdom away from beatification, even before we got our high school diplomas.

But those were the years when my reading and my awareness of the real issues of the world were limited to textbooks, the Old and New Testaments, and the occasional comic books (and a few restricted literature I secretly brought to school, which would have had me expelled had I been caught and thereby jeopardizing my sainthood!). And in this age, news, scandals and issues are just a URL away, especially those  involving the Roman Catholic Church. They're even more difficult to ignore because nowadays as the Vatican City is always in the headlines.

And that's what I mostly read about the Catholic Church these days: pedophile priests and abused altar boys and seminarians, and cover-ups, and in the case of the Philippine Catholic church, meddling in the affairs of the government and in elections.  I thought the separation of Church and State was written in the Philippine Constitution. I guess, if it's not in written in the Bible, it doesn't count. I just could not understand why those Philippine bishops and priests tried to move heaven and earth in opposing a law (then a bill in Congress) that would provide information and care to Filipino parents. Aren't they supposed to promote love and care for their fellow men and women? Why couldn't they understand the plight, especially that of the poor Filipino mothers, who could not afford proper maternal health care and who usually have no access to proper medical information? These priests and bishops' being single, unmarried and not worrying about daily survival should not be an excuse for not understanding the issue. Could they at least include these issues involving their so-called 'flock' in their list of things to worry, which I think usually only include what sermon to deliver or how much the Sunday collection would be? Do they still think they're still in the Medieval Ages when the Church labelled a heretic anybody who opposed them? It's now the 21st century and just like any corporate entity that wants to go global, the Roman Catholic Church should adapt, too.

Over the years, in my parish, I have heard stories about priests whose relationships with their 'flock' were not only limited to the spiritual. It included sexual and financial as well. And when I was in high school, I met a middle-aged man who told me he was a priest but was ex-communicated because he had children. Remembering it now, I can only admire that former priest's bravery. At least, he had the decency to own up to his decision to have a family and face its consequence whatever it might have been, unlike the ones who hide behind the cassock and use their authority to get whatever worldly things they want. Well, so much for the vows of chastity, obedience and poverty, I guess.
                                        (Saint Peter)

So, who wants to be pope?

I heard from a priest on TV that any unmarried, baptized Catholic can be actually pope!  Really??  Although that would include me and a few of my friends, I doubt any of us would actually think about it. We are not part of the College of Cardinals and flying to Rome this time of the year is not part of my travel plans (although my friends Margarita and Maurizio in Rome are already hurrying me to visit them again!). But whomever the cardinals vote for at the conclave, the next Pope should have to first own up to the Church's sins, just like a sinner before a confessor. And the penance should not only be a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers, nor a simple re-assignment to another parish. It should include proper admission and retribution for those culpable with no cover-ups. If the Church was able to apologize to Galileo after 367 years, why not the sins of last century? And to quote a cardinal from the movie, Angels and Demons, "Religion is flawed because man is flawed."  Do I hear, 'Mea culpa!' ?
                    (A sign before entering the Sistine Chapel)

And just like any good CEO, the next Pope should be able to trouble-shoot the Church's problems inside and out. It won't be an easy job, but with God on his side, solving the problems of politics, the finances and the changing landscape of the faith and the faithful should make it less difficult. And while he's at it, perhaps he should appoint a committee to look into the pricing of souvenirs at the Vatican Museum, its long queues and the crazy fees to hire a museum tour guide, too.

Seriously, now.

In a few weeks, before Easter Sunday, we will hear the words "Habemus Papam!" (We have a new Pope!) He may be a cardinal from Europe or from North or South America, Africa or even Asia. I just wish that before they send out that white smoke from the Sistine Chapel, the College of Cardinals will need to choose carefully from among themselves someone, who not only can carry on what Saint Peter started during the first century, but someone who will be able to spiritually lead and clean up the Roman Catholic Church, and let it adapt and flourish in the 21st.

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