Back at the keyboard after a Tuesday morning breakfast of fried egg and corn flakes washed down with ice water (I don't get my first coffee of the day until 7:30), my thoughts are drawn half a world away to Vatican City. Today, a history-making event begins: For the first time in 598 years, a conclave (election for the next Pope of the Roman Catholic Church) takes place while the previous Pope is still living.
I'm not posting here to discuss the reasons why Pope Benedict XVI resigned. For those, one can dive-bomb into Fox News, EWTN, or the Huffington Post, depending upon your point of view. Nor am I going to predict the winner of this contest which looks like it could go past three days of voting. No, I'm posting about this momentous event to answer several questions.
(1) Why do I care? Excellent question. To be fair, many figure I--being a dyed-in-the-wool Protestant and the fifth generation of Presbyterian clergymen--should be one of the most distant from this conclave in both geography and interest. Nor does it seem that what happens half a world away should have much bearing on what I do in teaching, in parenting, or in leisure. I'll grant you that, from a quick glance you may be right. Some people have even mentioned that my excitement over Conclave 2013 is evidence I'm not properly medicated, but I'll let that one pass.
But still I care. And I think several providential events of life have gone into this. When we moved to Maryland from Mississippi before my freshman year of high school, I suddenly found my circles of friends flipped from a demographic of Bible-belt evangelicals [and to this day I don't know what that fully means] to one of nominal-to-dedicated Catholics. One of my best friends from my high school days in Westminster, MD, is now a priest and chaplain for the Legion of Christ. And when your primary relationships change that dramatically, you have two choices: combat them or learn from them. I chose the latter and never looked back.
Another critical event came when I started teaching in Christian schools--or I should say, in particular types of Christian schools. I've taught in four schools, and in the first three (Louisiana, Virginia, and Florida), I've had the privilege and honor of working side by side with Catholics on the faculty and staff. I found our conversations to be stimulating and civil, not glossing over differences and nuanced distinctions but aiming for the true common ground between us...what C.S. Lewis tagged as Mere Christianity. I discovered that what mattered were the essentials we shared, the consensus of orthodox (small "o") Christian belief down through the centuries, and that there was much to be said for mingling with fellow believers in the "hallway" rather than bunkering down with separatists in a "room".
One final marker occurred more recently when a good friend of mine who was raised Catholic but had since become an elder in the Presbyterian Church informed me he had re-converted (not sure if that's the right word!) back to Catholicism. In the semi-regular cyberspace chats we've had, he's told me how the Catholic Church of today is leaps and bounds beyond where it was when he was a kid. The depth of Scripture content, emphasis on laypeople to read the Bible for themselves, and a deeper focus on the unmerited grace of God are all coming out of various reforms that began about a half-century before. So, despite the fact I am not of the Catholic church, I am still somewhat hopeful for its long-term health.
(2) Why should you care? I know I can't make you care, but I can try. For one, I will not deny that there are several messes and ethical craters that the Catholic Church has allowed and tolerated--the priestly sexual abuse scandal being at or near the top of that list. But if you are concerned about the failings of RCC leadership, shouldn't you at least care about who is chosen to lead and reform that ship and potentially steer it in a wise, pastoral, and transparent direction?
Another reason you should care: Perhaps you want to learn how to be a good leader, by noting the successes and mistakes of others. Well, there are few things more challenging than being the spiritual head of 1.2 billion people. You could learn a lot from whoever will next take the throne of St. Peter.
And thirdly on the "why should you care" question: Why not? Doesn't a tradition that stretches back centuries and is conducted with the utmost solemnity strike you as utterly intriguing? Aren't you the least bit curious? I know I am! Of course, I realize part of that is my precocious nature. I want to know things for the sake of knowing (probably why I gobble up sports statistics the way I do). And while most of my Protestant friends know conclave starts today, a shocking number ignore it or disdain it, simply because they believe Catholics are "not one of them."
And on that point I'd challenge them to think differently. Not that there aren't real differences of some beliefs (there are), but why write off a whole group like that? I fully realize the irony of quoting Dan Brown in a post on Conclave 2013, but in The DaVinci Code, professor Robert Langdon is at a conference in Paris presenting slides of various religious artifacts when he makes the point: "We fear what we do not understand." And I wonder if for some people, they disdain what is different because they are threatened.
(3) Why is this so important? There are many reasons. New leadership brings the opportunity for a new image for the Catholic Church. It seems clear what is needed is a Pope to transcend geopolitical barriers with a winsome message of Gospel hope. It is equally clear the age calls for a Pope with backbone to institute moral fiber amongst the leadership and that priests and bishops are men of character. But another reason why Conclave 2013 is so important is...well, have you seen the candidates? Among the top contenders, we have people like Peter Turkson of Ghana, Odilo Sherer of Brazil, and Luis Tagle of the Philippines, just to name a few. The ethnic diversity of this conclave is the greatest it has ever been, and that is one final reason for its importance. We could have, for the first time, a Pope who comes from outside European borders, and it could happen this week. And that could be the most important thing: Reflecting the people of God worldwide who represent every tribe and tongue and nation.