When the college of cardinals meets to choose the new pope they will also have to wrestle with the contradictions of modern Catholicism When the conclave of cardinals in their crimson robes meets beneath the Michelangelo frescoes of the Sistine Chapel next Monday afternoon, Cornelius Schilder, the bishop of the diocese of Ngong, in Kenya, and Boniface Lele, Archbishop-elect of Mombasa will not be there.
In a strict hierarchy that gives the right to choose the next pope to just 117 men in a church of 1.1 billion even these purple-robed bishops rank too low. It does not, however, stop them having an opinion on the future of their church.
On Thursday afternoon, a day before Pope John Paul II's funeral rites, the two men walked happily down the Via della Conciliazione, a broad avenue that slices through the Vatican, running from the Tiber's banks to the vast colonnaded arms that stretch out from the basilica of St Peter's. They had come to see the crowds queuing for hours for a few seconds with the body of John Paul II. They had come to judge the meaning of a phenomenon, and its implications for their church.
'Quite overwhelming,' said Dutch-born Schilder as his fellow African bishop nodded. 'We have been walking for two hours. You have to understand how the Holy Father touched the whole world over.'
Schilder interprets the meaning of the vast crowds in the way that the late Pope would have hoped, that the outpouring of celebration for his life reflects too the Pope's own greatest battle: for the 'right to life'. 'There is a great wave - something in the hearts of most people - a sense that God sent this person to us with this message. That is the most important thing. I feel there is a message for us too from people telling us they have received something from John Paul. It gives me a tremendous boost in my own faith.'
He remarks ruefully that in two hours, although they had been photographed many times, no one had sought to speak to them - perhaps intimidated by their robes.
'The fact that people want to have their pictures taken with us - to connect even in a superficial way,' said Schilder, 'may lead to deeper things. The Holy Father has opened the way for a renewal in faith in God and in the church. The new pope will have a flying start because of what John Paul has done.'
It is this question that has loomed over last week as the college of cardinals - the oldest in the history of the church - has begun its delicate negotiations to find a new pope. And all the while, like Schilder and Lele, they have been wondering at the meaning of the unprecedented reaction to the passing of Karol Wojtyla.
But it is not just the high ranks of the clergy who have looked at the crowds and wondered how to harness this energy for a church that, at least in Europe and the US, has seen a dramatic and continuing decline in attendance and vocations.
Before I encountered the two bishops, I had come across the veteran religious affairs correspondent of the Irish Times, Patsy McGarry, who had travelled on a number of Papal visits. 'This is the living church,' he said, indicating the huge crowd in front of us. 'What is extraordinary is that they just live their own lives and they make these complex mental distinctions. They separate John Paul the man from the church he led, even as he represented the values most difficult for them.'
And that separation of these two aspects of the church on their shared but diverging journeys was nowhere more dramatised than at John Paul II's funeral as the church leadership faced its vast congregation across St Peter's Square - and the globe - across the coffin of Karol Wojtyla: hierarchy, dogma, discipline and ritual on one side against the vast pragmatic, chanting informality of the 'living church'.
On one side the vast imposing architecture of theology, doctrine, philosophy and form; on the other the raw, ragged, unifying power of emotion. On one side celibacy and age and on the other surging youth.
That dissonance was summed up by two 21-year-old men who came for the funeral, both of them devoted to John Paul II in their own ways, both of them representing the future of their faith, yet living lives in contradiction. Their point of intersection was the figure of John Paul II.
Michael Palejczik had driven with his family in three cars from the Polish city of Gorzov. Sitting outside his tent at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, surrounded by other groups of Polish pilgrims, he said he has not slept for 36 hours. Upon his arrival in Rome, he had heard it was still possible to see the Pope lying in state despite the closure of the queue by the Italian authorities. When I met him he had returned from his overnight vigil to get some sleep before heading again to St Peter's Square to watch the funeral.
'I felt inside that I needed to show this man a special respect for all that he has done for Poland,' says Michael. He defines his respect for Pope John Paul in terms of his nationality, his personality - and as someone he sensed as holy.
'Driving for 20 hours is nothing if it is for him,' he says. I ask him about the meaning of his own religion. Michael says he still celebrates communion but he admits that it is difficult to square his own life with what the church demands - and John Paul demanded - especially on the matter of sex. 'I'm not married. I have a girlfriend. I understand that the church is 2,000 years old and it is very difficult to make changes but I think it should be more liberal. It is very difficult for me and my friends. The church says we should not have sex before marriage if we are Catholic. And what about contraception? I know it is hard to change, but the church should be more honest.'
On the outskirts of St Peter's Square I meet Brother Simon Cleary, a New Zealand seminarian who is studying to be a priest in Rome, with a fellow student from Nevada.
Cleary is unusual in the English-speaking church. In a time of collapsing vocations, he has chosen to study for the priesthood. So it is perhaps unsurprising that he defines his reaction to the meaning of John Paul through the church's leadership.
'We have got to go out and finish the work of John Paul II,' he says. 'John Paul asked for a new evangelisation, and look - millions have heard his word.'
'Someone has got to start working. And if there needs to be a change I think it is that people need to come closer to the church not that the church needs to come closer to the people.'
Like Bishops Schilder and Lele, Cleary believes the true power of John Paul's message was not in his advocacy of freedom and human rights, but in his advocacy for 'life' - his opposition to euthanasia, contraception and abortion.
The question for the church is how to bridge this gap outside of these brief but powerful moments of catharsis.
'I don't think [this separation] is a problem,' said a senior Catholic official. 'The bishops have always been pastors. The sheep don't always know where to go to look for guidance. And the flock does need guidance. They offer a wide spectrum of feeling and depth of faith.'
He agrees, however, that the events of the last week inevitably will set a challenge for the cardinals as they consider what the outpouring of emotion means for their institution and the selection of a new pope.
This still leaves the central contradictions of the Catholic Church intact. For even as the Vatican's own security begins its next mammoth task after the funeral, ensuring the secrecy of next Monday's conclave, sweeping the Sistine Chapel for listening devices and preparing the conditions of the cardinals' purdah, it seems clear that the leadership and congregation have drawn markedly different messages from the scenes of the last extraordinary week.
The few clues that have emerged from cardinals and others close to the top of the church's hierarchy are suggesting that despite the ageing congregations and the falling numbers of priests, many cardinals are concluding that John Paul was on the right track and that it was not just the power of his personality - but his religious orthodoxy too - that has inspired so many.
It is the cardinals - and not the wider church - who will choose the successor to John Paul II, and the few comments that have emerged in the last week suggest that in the discreet meetings behind the scenes between small groups of cardinals there is little appetite either for radical change or for another long papacy. A recognition exists too that, despite the popularity of John Paul II, there is no point in trying to replicate him.
It is a process of selection, in any case, that has not begun simply with Karol Wojtyla's death. In anticipation of his demise conversations on the future leadership have been quietly conducted among groups of Cardinals for several years. Now, however, they have been supplied with an urgent new meaning.
And while some are holding their counsel, other cardinals have been more open about their expectations.
Among them has been Sydney's Cardinal George Pell, who a day after the death of the Pope, confirmed that the discussions were already going on. 'I've never been to a conclave (to elect a new pope) before,' he said. 'It would be a great mistake to see it in exclusively or heavily political terms.
'There will be debate and discussion on what is the best way to present the message of Christ, the best way to live a Catholic life. But that's not politics in the way that we generally understand it.
'I'm quite sure that the general line - fidelity to basic Catholic teachings - is absolutely unassailable. I don't think that anyone who really knows the church believes that any radical change is likely.'
And while the media has looked at headline issues such as church attendance, contraception and sex as the points of likely tension, for the cardinals themselves there are other issues that are more pressing - the reform of the Curia (the Vatican's 'civil service'), centralisation of power, and the concept of so-called 'collegiality' - a central tenet of the Second Vatican Council which met in the early 1960s - that proposed more independence for local dioceses.
It is this last issue that was on the minds of several US cardinals as they arrived in Rome.
'How do you reflect the unity of the universal church and then figure out how to do that in our own back yard? That's a question for the church in the future to look at and figure out,' Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter.
It is a view that was endorsed by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago: 'I think collegiality needs to be strengthened, because that means you strengthen the unity of the bishops. We can look for better ways to strengthen it.'
Collegiality, he added, 'doesn't mean autonomy. It doesn't mean independence. It means just the opposite. It means you are together'.
But after last week there are some among the cardinals who are not taking the outpouring of emotion and face value as a vindication of John Paul's connection with the faithful.
Foremost among them is the English Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor. 'The fact that they're not going to church doesn't mean they're not Catholic, or Christian,' he said, speaking to journalists at the English College in Rome last week.
'But how do you live Christ in today's secular culture?' he asked, acknowledging how much John Paul II had transformed the Papacy. 'How you do touch people where they itch? The Catholic church has to find new ways of doing that.'
On that issue, the majority in the youthful crowds who jammed into Rome last week seem certain to agree.
Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor
Sunday April 10, 2005
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