|Sr. Joan Chittister: An American Catholic in Rome|
Posted April 8, 2005 at 10:21 a.m. CDT
By Joan Chittister, OSB
By the time you read this, Rome will already have buried its bishop. But as I write this, at the Vatican the last person is still filing past the bier of Pope John Paul II and stragglers are still straining to taste some part of the history of this moment.
Most interesting of all, perhaps, is that like all the family wakes I ever attended as a child, this final day of viewing has been a day of story telling.
One series of them, in particular, fascinated me. "The really interesting thing," a British journalist told me, "is that I had no press pass and couldn't get beyond the barriers so I simply stood and took pictures of the crowd." Then, clearly trying to understand what he saw, he paused a moment before he continued: "When I looked at my pictures later, I realized that I hadn't seen a person in the line who was over 25." Another pause: "What do we make of that?"
More than that, what do we, as a church, make of that in the face of the emphasis on youthful youth ministers. One diocese in the United States, for instance, has just fired three nun chaplains at the local Newman Center. The priest director explains the move on the grounds that they want younger ministers who can better identify with college students. They want to begin a "new'evangelization" that nuns over 50, apparently, cannot manage with the younger generation.
I also couldn't help but wonder, however, what exactly it was that bound this pope in a special way to the young of this generation. Maybe the answer is far simpler than we realize.
Maybe the answer has something to do with grandparents. We live in a society where grandparents and the notion of the extended family are almost a thing of the past. We call it "the nuclear family" but we mean that people are born in one state, raised in a second, educated in a third, employed in a fourth and retired in a fifth. As a result, they lose their roots, their relatives, and, for both the old and the young, their sense of generational connections.
Grandparents, in a culture such as this, are people who live at a distance and send Christmas packages. They are not people who take a child fishing anymore or give them silly bear hugs or smile at them in particularly indulgent ways. Maybe this pope and his quiet patience with their music, their cheers, their wild applause and roaring chants gave them a touch of that.
Maybe he was the grandfather of their souls, the sign of wisdom to them, rather than authority, the model of the good life and the ideals they seek.
Or, as one of the story-tellers on this final day of the people's wake reminded us, when someone asked this Holy Father how he was doing, he cocked his tilted head on his bent over shoulders and gave his enquirer a knowing look. Then, with a twinkle in his eye he said, "From the neck down, not too well; from the neck up, fine."
It's a good story for a culture on the verge of substituting ageism for wisdom to remember.
© 2005 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115
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