Mourning the pope
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Posted April 11, 2005 at 4:00 a.m. CDT

The next bold initiative: to listen

By Tom Roberts
NCR Editor

An irony of John Paul II’s papacy so evident that it is rarely mentioned is that in order to act in a way that changed the world, he had to act in a way that dramatically changed the papacy. John Paul, the traditionalist, turned tradition on its head.

In doing so, he leaves the next pope an almost endless horizon of possibilities for how to be pope. Once John Paul made the Vatican merely home base rather than a home never to be left, all tradition was put on hold. He could go where he wished, meet with whomever he wished, pray with whomever he wished, say whatever he wished without regard for political feelings or the normal constraints of protocol.

So now the terrain is wide open.

What might happen?

In a flight to Rome, removed for a time from the immediate demands of the news, I took the opportunity to imagine what might come next, how anyone might follow a life that, even from a funeral bier, holds the world enthralled.

A week’s worth of news coverage following the death of the pope had begun to establish the two strains immediately apparent in the reign of John Paul: he was, indeed, larger than life on the world stage, someone who found a way to speak truth across lines of cultural, national and religious differences, a friend to other world religions and a tireless advocate for peace; inside the church, however, he was at best an inconsistent administrator who left a deeply divided, questioning and unsettled church.

Analysts from every point on the spectrum have said he settled for bishops who were mediocre and lacking in real leadership qualities in exchange for unconditional loyalty and the assurance that his bishops would not raise difficult questions. Those are broad categories, generally applied, so they are in some instances unfair. But it is not going too far to say that in the case of U.S. bishops many, if not most, were fearful of reactions from any number of factions in the church, as well as authorities in Rome.

One friend put it this way in describing John Paul II’s effect on many within the church: He was like the famous father whose kids know that the smiling, beneficent bearing outside the home can turn rather autocratic and severe inside.

But what he did on the outside, we all know, will inspire history for generations to come, and it can be good for us inside the church, too. It can be beneficial because he broke all the molds, he showed that there are no rulebooks for how to be pope.

So what if the next pope decides that he will continue to break molds? What if he, too, decides that he will be a world presence, that he will travel widely, but in a different way? What if he announces soon after his election that he will spend the first year or so of his papacy traveling the world to take stock of the state of the church?

But his travels will not be of the rock star variety. No huge crowds. No pushing dioceses to the edge of financial ruin to stage events. No stadium shows, no elaborate sets, no layers of rich robes billowing and glinting royally in the afternoon sun. No, instead, he’ll travel in a black suit, the only ornament the chain across his chest holding a pectoral cross. He’ll go with a small retinue and few demands. In these travels, he’ll come in quietly, a small reception at the airport and then down to his work: to meet with his brother bishops, not to talk or instruct, but to listen.

What might happen in the church, what tone might overtake business as usual, what might happen to the instinct for silencings and discipline, for absolute answers to everything, if our top shepherd were to begin his tenure with a year of papal listening sessions?

What new model of pastoral leadership might begin to trickle down through the ranks, if his first act of authority is not to mandate but to listen?

John Paul showed the church and the world that the pope could act boldly, beyond the constraints and protocols and expectations of history and tradition. The next pope might build on that – and take a really bold step.

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