Papal Ponderings at the Sweet Sistine

If I were Pope Benedict XVI I might have just clicked the heels of those magical red shoes three times and wished for an extra dose of papal energy rather than resign.  After all, it has been 723 years since Pope Celestine V called it quits, the only other pope in history to voluntarily resign.


Unfortunately, Celestine’s story, while precedent-setting, did not have a happy ending.  Pietro del Morrone, as Celestine V was called before he became pope, was an Italian hermit and monk who was known for sleeping on bare rock in a cave on a mountainside.  He practiced mortification of the flesh by wearing a horsehair shirt and an iron girdle which caused deep cuts and frequent bleeding.  Pietro attracted such a following that he started a new branch of the Benedictine order.

In 1292 Pope Nicholas IV died, and scheming cardinals became deadlocked over his successor.  They decided to elect the feeble 84-year-old Pietro, thinking that he could be easily manipulated for their own ends.  Evidently, Celestine was also heavily influenced by the King of Sicily, which led to the appointment of other cardinals who took advantage of the pope who didn’t want to be a pope.

Celestine V soon realized that he had no aptitude for popehood, and things went from bad to worse, prompting him to resign after just five months.  The day before he left office, Celestine signed a legal document that gave him the authority to resign.  The document was written by a cardinal who promptly became the next pope, Boniface VIII.

Celestine simply wanted to go back to his cave and live as a hermit.  Boniface, however, was a tad insecure and suspected that the people might rally around Celestine.  Boniface had Celestine arrested and imprisoned in a castle, where he died shortly thereafter.

For the next 721 years no popes voluntarily resigned until February 11, 2013 when Pope Benedict announced, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise.  In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, …both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

Benedict’s resignation took most of the Catholic world by complete surprise.  Why would the most influential religious leader on this earth, presiding over 1.3 billion Catholics, freely give up his power?  After all, when popes are elected they are no longer human.  Or so they seem. Few are privy to the inner workings of the Curia, the episcopal administration at the Vatican, but there have been rumblings. Vatileaks, political intrigue, corruption, sexual misconduct, financial mismanagement: it’s no wonder Benedict had enough.  Would you want to deal with all of that at age 85?  There’s a reason why no cardinal over 80 years of age is permitted to vote for the next pope and why almost every corporation or business has a mandatory retirement age.  For United Methodist bishops it’s 72.

At last Wednesday’s final public address before 100,000 people packing St. Peter’s Square, Benedict made an uncharacteristic personal comment when he said, “The Lord seemed to sleep” at times during his eight-year tenure.  I applaud Benedict for his courage in admitting that the Catholic Church deserves stronger leadership than he is able to offer.  Benedict has given Catholics a gift: the opportunity to elect a new pope who has the energy and inspiration necessary to lead in the 21st century.

I love the Catholic Church and will be praying this week as the 115 elector cardinals begin their secret conclave to select the next pope.  If I could vote for pope, I’d click the heels of my red shoes three times (I wonder if his shoes are for sale?) and look for these qualities.

Leadership and management experience:

A 21st century pope must have the ability to set a vision for the future and inspire Catholics to share their faith with a world that yearns to know, love, and follow Jesus Christ.  Of necessity, the pope will need experience at many different levels in the Catholic Church and be willing to risk moving in different and daring directions for the sake of a God who is continually making all things new.

At the same time the pope must have the skills to build teams and delegate shrewdly, deal with a shortage of priests and a shrinking church, and manage a priestly hierarchy that in the past has tended to minimize or ignore misconduct that has caused unspeakable human sorrow.  To his great credit Benedict realized that he was not able to manage the complexity of his office.

A Global Understanding:

A 21st century pope must be familiar with technology, social media, and the impact of globalization on the church.  In electing the next pope the cardinals must acknowledge that 42% of Catholics live in Latin America.  The Catholic world no longer revolves around Italy and Europe, and the Pope must understand the hearts, minds, and spirits of people who live in the fastest growing Catholic countries.  In addition, the pope must lead in interfaith dialogue, seeking common ground with other religious traditions in order bring shalom to our world.

The ability to connect:

A 21st century pope is aware that the world ultimately changes because of the ministry of the laity, not that of the pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests.  By identifying with the hopes and dreams of ordinary people, the pope needs to be able to speak our language at same time as he interprets theology and doctrine on behalf of the Catholic Church.  The charisma of the pope is transferred to millions of disciples of Jesus Christ through teaching, equipping, making available the sacraments, identifying with the poor, leading as a servant, and unleashing passion.


A 21st century pope knows his own gifts as well as limitations.  Benedict had the courage to admit that he was no longer up to the task of being Pope.  In a system where popes “pope” until they die, Benedict said, “No.  I love the church too much to keep on.  It is in the best interest of the Catholic Church for a new pope to be elected.”

A Deep Spirituality:

A 21st century pope is, above all, the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church.  Catholics look to the Pope for prayer when they are struggling, strength when they are weak, hope when they are in distress, steadiness when they are in crisis, spiritual food when they are starving, theological depth when they are challenged by the secular world, and empowerment to fight injustice and poverty.

In short, we need a pope who both does and doesn’t want to be pope.  Whoever is elected pope this month must not accept the office in order to wield power over others or seek personal status.  Yet the pope also needs to have the necessary skill set to lead and is ready and willing to humbly say, “Here I am, Lord,” if called.

The election process that begins this week is short, but it can be nasty, brutal, and intensely political.  Special interest groups will make their voices heard, potential candidates will be vetted in the press, and some people will no doubt be victimized and hurt.  What is meant to be a holy process will seem at times unholy.

The deck is stacked against any pope exercising too much adaptive leadership because of the weight of ponderous traditions that seem immovable.  Therefore, the new pope will need enormous strength of character and depth of spirit to chart a bold course for the future.

I have no idea who the frontrunners are, but Irish bookmaker Paddy Power ( will gladly take your bet.  Sorry, it’s illegal to place bets on the pope in the USA.  Fortunately, you can play Religion News Service’s “Sweet Sistine” March Madness-style bracket tournament if you want to join the fun.

sweet sistine

Meanwhile, Benedict will no longer wear his red shoes and has chosen to wear brown shoes given to him as a gift from a trip to Mexico.  As Benedict begins the last part of his life as a pilgrim (his word), he will spend a few months in the papal summer home outside of Rome before returning to the Vatican to lead a life of prayer.

Thanks be to God for His Holiness Benedict XVI, Emeritus Pope, and thanks be to God for the new pope who will be elected in the Sweet Sistine Chapel.  United Methodists are praying for you!