Sr. Joan Chittister: An American Catholic in Rome
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Posted April 22, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT

Adolescence or adulthood: which?

By Joan Chittister, OSB

So how are things in Rome now that we have a new pope? It all depends on who you ask.

Rome is quiet this week. Not silent, just quiet. There is no sense of great joy -- I was in Rome once when the country won the World Soccer Championship and, trust me, this is not the same -- but there is no panic either. Thoughtful, I think you'd call it.

Even the press has settled down a bit. The sense of the frantic, the urgent, the breathless has dropped a decibel or so.

Read Joan Chittister's weekly columns
Previous and current columns from An American Catholic in Rome

Adolescence or adulthood: which? Posted April 22, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT
And he shall be called . . .  Posted April 20, 2005 at 4:30 p.m. CDT
I missed the smoke; I got the idea Posted April 19, 2005 at 10:00 a.m. CDT
Never mind the papabile, consider the papacy Posted April 17, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT
The underside of the issue Posted April 16, 2005 at 4:10 p.m. CDT
Antigone or Ismene: The new choice Posted April 15, 2005 at 6:24 a.m. CDT
Win a couple, lose a couple Posted April 13, 2005 at 2:05 p.m. CDT
When demonstrations are not demonstrations Posted  
Posted April 12, 2005 at 11:56 a.m. CDT
The purpose of the interregnum Posted April 11, 2005 at 3:37 p.m. CDT
Be aware of Greeks bearing gifts
Posted April 10, 2005 at 10:42 a.m. CDT
He was the grandfather of their souls Posted April 8, 2005 at 10:21 a.m. CDT
Poignant and paradoxical Posted April 7, 2005 at 8:09 a.m. CDT

Two years ago this week, Sr. Chittister began writing a weekly Web column for NCR. Click on this link to read From Where I Stand by Sr. Joan Chittister,OSB.

Instead of the unending discussion of possible candidates and the fascination with a chimney and the processions of smiling cardinals from one side of the piazza to the other, they are now trying to determine what precisely this new pope, already 78 years old, will do and how what he does will be accepted by the church.

So now the process of electing a pope is over and the process of defining this papacy has, theoretically, begun.

But not really, not rapturously and not entirely.

The truth is that there is not much to define yet. Pope Benedict XVI says that he will continue what John Paul II began. He will dialogue with other faiths. He will seek to promote social development. He will encourage ecumenism in the Christian community. And, more than that, perhaps, he will address the secularization of Europe.

The problem is that no one knows yet precisely what those words mean to this pope. Instead, statements from this pope's past about non-Christian religions, about women, about homosexuals, about theological development, about Muslims in Europe and Islam as a factor in the growth of Christianity become the benchmark against which the future is being predicted. Nevertheless, everyone in Rome it seems -- professional or not -- is involved in a kind of assessment of what could well be the character of this new papacy.

As career Vatican watchers and the religion editors of the world analyze and interpret what they see and hear, average people -- people on the street, parish Catholics and academics -- are beginning to draw their own conclusions.

The results are not always comforting but they are always stated with a great deal of equanimity, I noticed. In fact, it is the almost universal equanimity that may be most troubling.

"It really doesn't matter to me," some say. "I used to be a Catholic but I left a long time ago. I could see that they were never going to change their attitude toward women and I didn't want my daughter to grow up in that."

The position is a crucial one. If the church is perceived as determined not to deal with evolving issues, as it once rejected the findings of science or the full humanity of minority peoples, for instance, how much of what it is calling "secularism" will it really be able to combat?

"I don't think much will change," others say. "After all, we know that this person has already closed off thought on many things. We will just simply have to go on by ourselves."

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It was the accent on "ourselves" that caught my ear. If people have begun to make their own moral and social judgments because the church tends to give more answers than it does to ask questions, how much longer will the teachings of the popes mean much at all?

"We simply have to wait and see what happens," most said. "It is one thing for a person to write rules and punish people. It is another thing to pastor a universal church. If you keep punishing people, you will simply drive more of them away. But this is a gracious man. I think we will see him change his approach."

The thought that a sacramental church could begin to be seen simply as a collection of rules rather than as a witness to the spirit of Jesus reduces the meaning of Christianity, makes it just one more system of control vying for power rather than a way of life.

"There is always the church of the catacombs," one group said. "If we have to practice our faith outside the church for awhile, that will be better than to become moral children again.

I have lived through five papal elections. I have never before heard people so calmly and so disinterestedly discuss the possible position of a pope. They are, it seems, prepared to make an assessment independent of the assessment of the cardinals.

The question is whether that is the sign of a church that is divided or of a church that has come of age.

If you believe in the theology of the Holy Spirit, it may well be the sign of a church that is also listening for the Word of God within as well as outside itself.

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