Two Old Popes

Age is on my mind—and blessed is the reader who doesn’t know why. The following has nothing to say to current events, but perhaps will point to some timeless theological wisdom.

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John Paul II was one of the most vigorous popes ever. He transformed the papacy into a center of dynamism through relentless travel. One recalls his plane landing on various continents and various climes, and himself, a man strong in body and spirit, descending in his fluttering white robes down the stairs, reaching the ground, and at once kneeling to kiss it. He had grown up under political oppression in Poland that tried to control minds and thoughts. He had been trained as an actor and wrote subversive plays and organized meetings where people could grow in solidarity with each other. He became a priest and taught interestingly about marriage and sex and prayer. He became a bishop. He became pope.

Then gradually his vigor left him. His body aged. He had one of the afflictions that come upon some of us in the evening of our lives. He trembled. He shuffled. And yet, he continued pope. He did not hide his infirmity. He prayed and he asked for prayer. And he remained extremely witty. Once he labored, slowly, to cross the room where church eminences were gathered to meet with him. He finally reached the far side, took his seat, and said in Italian, “Still he moves.”

In Italian, the same words mean “Still it moves.” They are the words Galileo is supposed to have said under his breath after the church had forced him to recount his view that the sun did not move around the earth. With John Paul, everyone laughed.

Of course it was awkward: to see this great man shuffling, sometimes drooling, and so forth. Wouldn’t it be better if he just went into a home, lived in private, and let someone else be pope? Yet in truth, it was precisely in his infirmity that he was pope. John Paul was teaching all of us how to age with dignity. He was showing us: This is what human dignity looks like sometimes. It’s okay. It’s human.

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In contrast, his successor, Benedict XVI, chose to resign as pope. This was due to a sense that he had growing inadequacies to carry out what the church needed. It was not an obvious decision, and it did not have to do with manifest physical ailments. It was, however, a breath-taking decision: no pope had resigned for centuries, and Dante had placed one who did resign down in the torments of the Inferno. To resign seemed unthinkable.

Yet Benedict did think it. And since he was the most brilliant theologian who had been pope for centuries, he deserved our giving him the benefit of the doubt. As an Episcopalian interested in ecumenical matters, I heard others say that by this resignation, Benedict had made the papacy much less of a stumbling block between our churches. He had made it clear that the papacy was a service and not an indelible thing like ordination. Bishops, priests, deacons: we can resign, retire, stop practicing; but we never cease to be the bishop or priest or deacon that we are. Our church believes that if you are ordained, you receive something that is indelible, it is with you forever. (We believe the same thing about baptism!) By his resignation, Benedict showed us that being pope is not something indelible, and thereby, possibly, he made it less of an obstacle to a future united church.

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So one pope showed us human dignity persisting in frailty. The other pointed us to unity with one another. In different ways, each was faithful to God’s call where he was.

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Out & About: Sunday, July 21, I am preaching at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas; the eucharists there are at 9 and 11:15 a.m.

The following Sunday, July 28, I’ll be at St. Luke’s in Dennison, Tex. I’ll be preaching at 8 and 10:30 a.m., and at 9:15 a.m. teaching a class on the parish as a school of friendship.

 

Flight Delay

 

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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: