Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Habemus Resegnum - We have a resignation

Statue of St. Peter at the Vatican

Jesus said to his disciples "Who do you say that I am?"  Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God."  Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah.  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my heavenly Father.  And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  (Matthew 16:15-19)

This is the passage from the Gospels which the Catholic Church has used to justify the authority of the Pope throughout the millennia.  Pope Benedict XVI, St. Peter's 265th successor, yesterday became the first in 600 years and only the third ever to resign (hence the latin root resegnum in the title of the this post).  Tradition says that Peter moved from Jerusalem to Rome after towards the end of his life to run church operations (All roads led there so it is said).  He was executed along with many other Christians in the first purge by the Emperor Nero because he needed a scapegoat for fiddling while Rome burned.  

The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (r: 306-337), after seeing a vision of the Cross in the sky, won a crucial battle to consolidate power. Made Christianity the official religion of the empire.  He built the first St. Peter's Basilica on the site where he is believed to be buried and then moved the capitol to the east in Constantinople.  Christmas was originally the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia.  Pope Leo I (declared a saint) who is canonized had a public relations coup when he was able to persuade Atilla the Hun to spare Rome when the weak western emperor couldn't stop him by force.  When the empire in the west collapsed under it's own weight in 476 (it survived in the east until 1453) the Pope (or Bishop of Rome) simply took the place of the Emperor.  Some of the Popes were as ruthless as the Ceasars were such as Pope Urban II (beatified but not declared a saint by the church) who ordered the crusades in 1066 which the Muslim world is still bitter about. 

Pope Alexander the VI (r:1492-1503, born Rodrigo Borgia) fathered several illegitimate children including the (rightly or wrongly) infamous Lucrezia when he took a vow of celibacy.  I wonder what he loosed in heaven that the gates of the netherworld could not prevail upon.  The Protestant Reformation began during the reign of Pope Leo X in 1517. Priests had only been required to be celibate since 1123.  Neither Alexander VI nor Leo X are declared saints or are beatified.

From the Roman period through the Middle Ages until the industrial revolution  The Roman Catholic Church was one of the few sources of social services in Europe for generations.  It survived the Roman persecution, dark ages, defeat in the crusades, a schism with Constantinople, the bubonic plague, the protestant reformation and many other challenges. That's the main draw of the church even to this day.  Old ties die hard even in the face of revelations of new(really old) scandals.  Even Stephen Colbert who teaches Sunday school in real life gets laughs mocking the church on his show.

The media will focus on who St. Peter's 266th successor will be and why the 265th decided to walk away from the job.  Since the modern state of Italy was founded in 1861 the Pope has been more of a symbolic leader than a political one.  John Paul II was popular because. like Ronald Reagan (both had once aspired to be actors), he had charisma.  He told people what they wanted to hear.  You can see in the video above that Benedict's speeches were more like academic lectures and he couldn't live up to the hype.  Who knows if the successor will be European or not.  It is not a democracy like the Roman Empire wasn't though it had some of the trapping of a republic with the College of the Cardinals (almost all of whom appointed by either Benedict XVI or John Paul II) along with the occasional ecumenical council resembling the old Roman Senate.  The typical scandals with which we are familiar will be there no matter who is chosen.  I'll leave you with this video from the court outside of the Vatican Art Museum with a modern art sculpture of the world.


John Fugelsang and Sister Simone give a good synopsis of Pope Benedict's record as Pope.  It isn't that different from John Paul II just not as charismatic.  He did make it easier for churches to say the old latin mass but I doubt too many will.  Former Pittsburgh Bishop and now Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl (appointed by Benedict) will have a role in selecting the 266th successor to St. Peter.

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