As the crowd looks up with expectation, one of the great rituals of the Western world is about to conclude. At times weeks, sometimes days, sometimes months, the faithful waited in St. Peter’s Square for the sign....white smoke from the chimney, a drama linked through the ages as a signal recognized to announce the selection of the new leader of the Catholic Church. After the smoky pronouncement, the Vatican’s senior deacon appears on the Papal balcony to declare - “Habemus Papam... we have a Pope.” Out then, steps the newest successor in the unbroken line going back to the apostle Peter, greeted with the cheers of the thousands assembled below.
“Habemus Papam” is also the name of an obscure Italian comedy, dealing with the relationship between the Pope and his therapist. It can be found online...But it really is not worth the effort. Still and all, it serves as the initial - admittedly very late - 2014 Sidebar movie reference.
This past weekend, with the canonization of two deceased Popes, in a service presided over by two living Popes, I could not help but think of the sacred and eternal essence that is the Papacy. In a world of constant changes, frequent chaos and shifting collective morals, the Holy Father still remains true to the directive given by Jesus to the first Pope… be the rock upon which is built over 2000 years of religious history.
Without looking it up, I could not tell you more than one or possibly two of the men who served as Pope between John the 23rd and John Paul II. Each left large footprints in the Vatican, dynamic, powerful forces of change, both within the Church and into the world. It is only right and good that they are elevated to Sainthood as a pair. On the 27th of April, this indeed came to pass.
Growing up in East St. Louis, there were two framed pictures in every classroom of St Cyril’s Catholic grade school - John the 23rd, Pope ... and John the Kennedy, President. It was a source of pride and inspiration. The signature accomplishment on John the 23rd was the wholesale modernization of the Church through Vatican II. The altar turned around to face the people; no longer the ban of meat on Friday; the Mass in English. As one who spent hours and hours learning Latin to become an altar boy, I felt cheated. Why should the younger guys have it so easy?... but the journey was worthwhile, as who could be upset with the “Good Pope," and his grandfatherly ways?
History will ultimately judge John Paul II a man who by force of will, helped to bring down the Soviet Union. He has a place in a Trinity - alongside Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan - as leaders whose personal courage and vision established peace in our times. His simple phrase - “Be not afraid” - was the watchword of shipyard unions in his native Poland who by asserting their rights began the fall of the “Evil Empire." Closer to home, his presence in St. Louis in January of 1999 set in motion two events, both of which can only be termed miraculous.
On his return trip to Rome from Mexico City, Pope John Paul II stopped for 30 hours in St Louis, January 26-27. The mass at the dome, the parades… all well documented. A little miracle… not so much. Darrell Meese was a convicted felon, scheduled to be executed. Clemency petitions had fallen on deaf ears with Gov. Mel Carnahan. In the receiving line as he left, the Pontiff spoke directly to the non-Catholic, “red neck from Rolla." He asked that he spare Meese’s life. Thereafter is recorded; mercy was extended, the political consequences borne, a virtual miracle, a life saved.
The path to canonization takes two recorded miracles. The melting of an entrenched politician determined to see capital punishment carried out may or may not qualify. But what happened afterwards certainly merits consideration. As he departed, John Paul II blessed the Trans World Dome, the home of the St Louis Rams. Since coming to St Louis in 1995, the Rams were 22-32, 4 and 12 in 1998. After the Pope’s visit, the Rams won the Super Bowl. If that ain’t a miracle, then I don’t know what is. Get the Holy cards ready.
The Papacy and indeed the entire Catholic Church has been under justified criticism and scrutiny in recent years. But it is good to remember that like its founder St. Peter - a flawed man who weakly and cowardly denied his relationship with Jesus, only to go on to a life of spiritual abundance - it is the overwhelming good - not the temporal bad that defines the Papacy. With these two new Saints, the Church reaffirms to the world that it continues to move toward the light, if ever so slowly, if at times misdirected. The challenge of the faithful is to not be distracted or discouraged by the dust of a world obsessed with darkness. Be not afraid.