. . . I can’t help feeling sympathy for John
Paul II, or anyone charged with the top job, whose freedom of action is
limited by the almost infinite series of consequences that could flow from
every papal move. It’s the Catholic version of chaos theory: if the pope
moves his arms in Rome, theoretically a tsunami
could bring down the church in China.
|It’s not easy being pope.
As the 20th Synod of Bishops opens
this week, I find myself reflecting on what a difficult task it is to lead
this sprawling international conglomerate we call the Catholic Church.
Outside the synod hall, there will be loud calls for reform on issues ranging
from democracy in the church to the ordination of women. Inside, talk of
change will be more muted, more subtle and diplomatic, but the pressure
will be there.
The church might well be healthier if it adopted
some of these reforms. Yet I can’t help feeling sympathy for John Paul
II, or anyone charged with the top job, whose freedom of action is limited
by the almost infinite series of consequences that could flow from every
papal move. It’s the Catholic version of chaos theory: if the pope moves
his arms in Rome, theoretically a tsunami could bring down the church
This thought crystallized as I followed the pope
to Armenia last week. As part of that trip, John Paul visited the Tzitzernagaberd
Memorial on a hill overlooking Yerevan. This simple, evocative monument,
the centerpiece of which is a pit with an eternal flame, recalls the deaths
of some 1.5 million Armenians from 1915-16, and again from 1922-23, as
the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the Young Turks sought to assert control
over the region.
Armenians think of what happened as genocide,
but the Turks have bitterly resisted the use of the term. They contend
the number of victims is inflated, and that there was no campaign to wipe
out the Armenians as a people.
Hence many observers were curious as to what vocabulary
John Paul would use. The pope clearly wanted to commemorate Armenian suffering;
on Oct. 7 he will beatify one of the victims, a bishop named Ignatius Maloyan,
who was killed in 1915 because he refused to become a Muslim.
Yet when the pope visited the memorial Sept. 26,
he did not use the word “genocide.” He instead referred in Armenian to
the Metz Yeghern , a phrase that means “great killing” or “great
genocide” depending on who you ask, but in any event does not have the
clarity of the English term. Later John Paul and the head of the Armenian
church, Karekin II, put out a joint statement recalling “what is generally
referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century.” (Hence the
pope did not take personal responsibility for invoking the vocabulary).
That night I dined with several colleagues who
are not full-time Vatican writers, who couldn’t understand why the pope
had “danced around” saying “genocide.”
First of all, I tried to explain, the pope wants
to improve relations with the Islamic world, especially in this moment
of international crisis, and Turkey is one of the moderates in the Islamic
block. He doesn’t want to aggravate the Turks if he doesn’t have to. Given
that Islam was invoked in some cases to justify the slaughter of Armenians,
the pope is especially reluctant to reopen this historical wound.
Second, the pope has to think not just at a broad
geo-political level, but also locally. There are some 32,000 Catholics
in Turkey who have to live with the Turkish authorities long after the
pope leaves the region. He can’t simply set off a rhetorical bomb and go
When I finished, a colleague from the Washington
Post said, “It’s not easy being pope.” Exactly.
Similarly, as John Paul tooled around Armenia
in the loving embrace of Karekin II, even staying overnight in his house
(the first time a pope lodged with an Orthodox prelate), most commentators
were swept away by the ecumenical spirit. Interestingly, the Armenians
who seemed most lukewarm were the local Catholics, who number 147,000 out
of a population of 3.3 million.
Why? For one thing, Orthodox authorities had wanted
to keep their patriarch, Archbishop Nerses Der Nersessian, out of the lineup
for papal events. It required a direct Vatican intervention in the last
week to get his name on the list.
For another, local Catholics felt snubbed because
the pope celebrated his public Mass in the Latin rite, even though the
local church uses the Armenian rite. Also, the pope chose not to beatify
Bishop Maloyan in Yerevan, even though he had beatified 27 Ukranian martyrs
while he was in that country. Both decisions were attributed to Orthodox
influence. Some Catholics also blamed the Orthodox for doing little to
turn out crowds at papal events.
In all these cases, local Catholics felt the Orthodox
wanted to welcome the pope, because his presence alongside Karekin elevated
their public image, but did not want to invite competition on the ground.
Hence they pretended that Armenian Catholics, who use the Armenian rite
but are in communion with Rome, don’t exist.
Some of the Armenian Catholic priests I interviewed
were disappointed John Paul didn’t take a tougher line. They believe their
community has suffered for its loyalty to the pope, and felt a bit betrayed
that when the pope finally came to visit they were again treated like second-class
One of those priests, however, acknowledged that
John Paul has to balance the needs of local Catholics against ecumenical
progress. He grinned, and said: “It’s not easy being pope.” Again, exactly.
Of course, as de Gaulle once said, “to govern
is to choose.” The fact that choices are difficult doesn’t excuse leaders
from making them, or for being held accountable. John Paul II has made
some brilliant choices and some lamentable ones, and all that is fair game
But we might, as we chew over the latest round
of calls for reforms and overhauls and changes in the system, spare a thought
for the thousand conflicting forces that hem in a pope on virtually every
issue. It’s not easy being pope, and perhaps we can try harder to understand
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