We Had a Pope
When it appeared he might be elected pontiff, he described feeling as if a guillotine was coming down upon him. Later, telling a German audience of pilgrims that he prayed to be spared, he playfully added: “Evidently this time [God] didn’t listen to me.”
As long as I have been in discernment, Benedict has been pope. As of 28 February 2013, he will step aside: “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”
Upon hearing of his transition, and upon reading his words, my mind turned to when Cardinal Melville was elected pope. You may not have heard of Melville. He’s “fiction” (although that would seem not to matter to the equally fictional bishop of Motopo who suggests to Father Quixote that “perhaps we are all fictions in the mind of God”).
Habemus Papam is an Italian film billed as comedy (a trailer or two can be watched here and here). Gentle instances of humour certainly exist throughout, but “comedy” is a stretch. “Habemus Papam” are words proclaimed from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. They signal that the newly elected Pope is about to make his first appearance to representatives of the world gathered below in St. Peter’s Square. These words, in that context, were last heard about eight years ago, and soon will be heard again. When these words (which mean “We Have a Pope”) are announced in Habemus Papam, a horrible shriek is heard. This is followed by tears and by words such as “help me” and “I can’t do this!” All are coming from the newly elected Melville.
A specialist in psychoanalysis is sought by the Vatican and brought to Melville. I just can’t go on, the newly elected Pope explains to the therapist. God sees abilities in me I don’t have. Where are these abilities? I look for them and find nothing. Unable to work freely with the Pope, the suggestion is made that the Pope be taken to another therapist. A session is arranged, and when brought into contact with his new listener, the Pope explains: I can’t do anything anymore. I’m always tired … I’d like to do so much. Upon leaving her office, the Pope evades his own security and loses himself among the people of Rome.
Greydanus presents this film as the antithesis of a Dan Brown novel (“Brown’s stories peer with feverish, lurid imagination at the inner workings of the Catholic hierarchy, discovering all manner of ridiculous subterfuge, ruthlessness, and skullduggery”). In contrast, Habemus Papam “hardly peers at all. It’s good-natured and inoffensive, regarding the cardinals with gentle amusements. But there’s no complexity or ambiguity, no depth or insight.”
I suppose I disagree with the latter part of that assessment. The new Pope, Melville, is a sensitive man and capable of articulating his heartfelt emotions. His is a Church, he observes, which has often been unable to admit its faults. While absent from the Vatican, he hears preached: “We need to show our wounds to [God] because he is the only one who can heal them.”
Both individual and Church are pilgrimaging. Both require honest self-identification before God. According to the Second Vatican Council, the Church “attain[s] its full perfection only in the glory of heaven,” and fascinating in Habemus Papam is the possibility that God might choose a reluctant man such as Melville; perhaps because such a man would have the strength and courage to voice his own faults and inadequacies. Melville sees himself as unable to be the one who seeks an encounter with all and as unable to model the love and understanding that all are owed, and because he sees these qualities as so essential to the ministry of the Pope, he feels unqualified.
However, if only God can provide healing and if the Church is guilty at times of not recognizing its own faults, then perhaps God is being evidenced through this self-less man. Perhaps it is through Melville’s example that God’s healing will be mediated.
Evaluations of the papacy of Benedict will vary but through his writings I experienced a sensitive man. I experienced him as capable of articulating something of his own inner life and of drawing someone such as myself into an encounter with Christ. Granted, perhaps greater transparency will emerge as will, perhaps, a better modelling of the love and understanding that all are owed but perhaps, also, Benedict’s honesty before God and the world communicates what it means to live in vulnerability. Those stripped of pretense, perhaps he is teaching, are those capable of the transforming love of God.
Benedict, goodbye. I will miss you.