12-04-22: Third Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 3:13-15,17-19 / Psalm 4 / 1 John 2:1-5 / Luke 24:35-48
Last Sunday, April 15th, was a day saturated with history. It was the day Abraham Lincoln died from the gunshot he endured the night before; it was the day the Titanic sank into the icy Atlantic taking fifteen hundred human lives; and it was Pope Benedict’s 85th birthday, celebrated amid widespread rumors that he would announce his resignation (retirement), as pope, due to age – it never happened.
There had been several popes in history who resigned in order to end schism or the scandal of simony but only one, Celestine V, who did so without external pressure. Having been a Benedictine monk for most of his life, Celestine was elected pope, without his knowledge, because of his reputation for sanctity and humility. He resigned the papacy at eighty years of age within a few months of his election because he felt that he could not handle the burdens of administration. He sought to complete his life in peace following the ordered routine of monastic life. Not too long ago Pope Benedict had visited Celestine’s grave, fueling the rumor that at some point Benedict might follow the example of his predecessor and resign the papal office because of age and/or infirmity (an option allowed by Canon Law). From remarks made on his birthday last week, however, the pope seems to have the clear intention to continue as successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ until death.
Apropos of rumors of papal resignation, the newly-released Italian film, We Have a Pope, is the fictional story of papal resignation or, more accurately, papal abdication. Although the film is difficult to follow at times and gets sidetracked into unnecessary farce, the plot remains an interesting one. It’s about the election of a new pope, Cardinal Melville; but, before he is introduced to the world from the balcony of St. Peter’s, the newly-elected pontiff experiences a psychological breakdown of sorts – he gets cold feet and, literally, runs away from his appointed destiny. You could say the frightened pope, filled with doubts about his own abilities, is the contemporary anti-hero, akin to the likes of an Edward VIII abdicating the British throne, his destined duty, “for the woman he loved.” The pope and the king just can’t measure up. But, we post-moderns might ask, who could?
At the heart of such human predicaments lies the question of duty, sacrifice and heroism and the quest for happiness and fulfillment. The more conservative among us might argue that, in the good old days, there was no predicament – happiness and fulfillment were found in doing one’s duty even if it required heroic sacrifice. But then, one might argue back, Pope Celestine lived in those good old days – the thirteenth century being, as Tennyson might have put it, the greatest of all the good old days.
Perhaps we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift in the way we understand how we engage our responsibilities and the permanence of our promises. Evidence of such is increasingly more clear in the way the Church approaches the possibility that circumstances can change the nature of our previous decisions: consider the number annulments the church grants every year or dispensations from active ministry (and celibacy) granted to priests. We might, from that more conservative viewpoint, condemn the objective decision of a fictional Cardinal Melville or the historical Edward VIII in forsaking the duty they seemingly were destined for. But we cannot judge their interior motivations or whether those decisions evince genuine courage or an unfortunate cowardice. That, only God knows.