Posts Tagged The Pope

A Papal Fascination

I’m not Catholic. Let’s just start right out with that, because it’s the most common reason to be fascinated by the transfer of power to the new Pope yesterday. Yet I was fascinated, riveted to the coverage for the hour between the rising of the smoke and the emergence of Pope Francis. I find many aspects of the Papacy fascinating. Don’t get me wrong, I find many aspects of it troubling as well, but for one hour yesterday the fascination held sway.

It’s because I love pre-Renaissance history. And names. And titles. And the history of names and titles. And really really long standing precedents. Let’s play this out.

The Pope is the Bishop of Rome. That’s his actual title. There’s a whole story behind how the Roman bishopric earned its primacy over, say, the Bishop of Alexandria which gets into ecumenical history that I don’t understand. Beneath that title lies the unofficial title Pontifex Maximus, a Latin phrase that means greatest bridge builder. This is the title I find fascinating, as it predates the papacy. Indeed, it predates Christianity by about 750 years, as the first recorded holder of the title dates to 712 BC. The title applied originally to the high priest of Rome. In the 60s BC this changed when an ambition young man named Gaius saw it as a stepping stone towards greater power. No one had ever tried that, but no one else was Julius Caesar. He passed the title on to his heir, and for nearly 400 years the title was one of those held by the Roman Emperor before applying to the Bishop of Rome.

There it is. Yesterday Cardinal Bergoglio accepted an elevation that includes a title with nearly 3000 years of history that was once held by Julius Caesar. Even if that title is largely unofficial, it’s one of the oldest titles held by any person today on the planet.

He also got a new name.

Popes choose a papal name, and they usually choose one with a history or meaning behind it. Cardinal Bergoglio chose meaning, but not history. The last pope to be the first of his name was John Paul I, though that doesn’t entirely count as he combined the names of his two immediate predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI. One difference between John Paul I choosing an unused name and Francis? It’s that ‘I’. Typically that little “the First” is added retrospectively after there is a “the Second,” but John Paul I was John Paul I during his life. Francis will, at least it appears thus far, be Francis, not to be styled Francis I until a later Pope chooses to be Francis II.

Before John Paul I, the last Pope to be the first of his name? Pope Lando. Seriously. There was a Pope Lando. He served in an era where Popes used their birth names, and he had the birth name of Lando. He also served from 913-914. When compared to a 3000 year old title, a merely 1100 year old tradition sounds almost new and quaint, but it still stands that Francis is the first pope to choose a completely unique papal name in eleven centuries. Eleven centuries minus 4-5 months. Sadly, Lando also served in a period where the Papacy was under the thrall of the secular politics of Rome, a period the church doesn’t remember fondly. This means we shouldn’t ever expect a Pope Lando II.

Now we have a title that dates back 3000 years taken by a man who overlooked 1100 years of tradition while following in the footsteps of a man who was the first Pope to resign in 600 years. A man who then got to choose his own title because the precedence for a living ex-Pope is nearly non-existent. Titles of former office holders is another fascination of mine, though one that’s hard to exercise. In the United States, tradition states that an official is referred to by the highest governmental title received, even if no longer serving in that office. Thus we still speak of President Clinton, the two President Bushes, Governor Schwarzenegger, and so on. Along this line I’ve always wondered what title Taft would prefer to now be known as. He served at the top of two branches of government, first as President then as Supreme Court Justice. Indications are he took more pride in the latter, so I always feel he should be Chief Justice Taft, not President Taft. Benedict XVI chose “Pope Emeritus” which, okay, I guess. It’s not thrilling, but then the much better title “Antipope” is reserved for far different circumstances.

Alright, enough about titles and names. One more bit of the papacy fascinates me. The power of the Bishop of Rome rose as the Western Empire collapsed. If you’re Edward Gibbon, this is not a coincidence. The death of Rome in many ways caused the birth of feudalism. Or, perhaps, the birth of feudalism caused the death of the Western Empire. It’s tough to really assign causation during those chaotic last centuries. Feudalism rose and fell. Monarchies held on in several European countries, and wherever there is a king or queen there is one last trace of feudalism, at least by name. The Pope is a monarch. It’s another one of those duties, he’s the monarch of the Papal See, and is the only elected monarch left in Europe.

One of the delays between the smoke and the appearance, along with prayers and some personal time, is a ceremony of the Cardinals affirming their fealty to the newly selected Pope. It’s ceremonial now, but this is a little throwback to a period not just when it wasn’t quite such a given and to the old feudal oath taking practices, which themselves have root in the annual tradition of Roman troops repledging their loyalty to the Emperor.

That’s all trappings. And it’s the trappings I find fascinating. I find the position troubling. Perhaps because it’s one man who exerts more power of influencing opinions than perhaps anyone else on the planet. Even if I agreed with those opinions, and many I do not, I would find that troubling. I understand that even most Catholics don’t fall in lock step with these opinions. But those that do, those organizations that do, those politicians that do, they can then exert a lot of power over others. We see that with organizations using Catholic theology as an opposition to health care reforms. And so I also track the changes in the Pope because I know that an increased liberality from these organizations will have to start from the top down. And that’s the dark underside of it all. There’s the fun, the stuff on television, the pomp, the ceremony, that expectation after the smoke, and that’s all a hell of a lot of fun. Now today there’s a new man, and there’s his positions.

The Pope, man. It’s a fascinating job, and it’s a troubling position.

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