Some days stand out. My memories as a young child mostly revolve around personally significant days like birthdays, Christmas, major family gatherings and the like. One of the first “I remember where I was when…” days I can recall which linked me to a larger world event at a particular time and spot took place on October 9, 1958.
Sister Mary Angelus BVM, then principal of Saint Francis Xavier Elementary School in my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri came into my Grade 6 classroom interrupting our lesson in the middle of the afternoon. Her serious demeanor that day fixed our attention on her tall figure heightened by the stiff white cylinder supporting her black veil, adding to the severity of her black habit, fronted by its starched, semi-circular white bib.
She came to tell us that Pope Pius XII had died. All of us then were told to kneel beside our wood desks to pray for the repose of his soul. Since that day I have lived through the papal reigns of John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and now Benedict XVI. In a little over a month the world’s 1.2 billion plus Roman Catholics will have yet another pope heading one of the longest lasting institutions in human history.
The 267th pope will face significant challenges. This is nothing unusual. Leo IX had to face the Great Schism of 1054, which split Eastern and Western Christendom. In 1517, Leo X had to react to the actions of a young monk named Martin Luther in Wittenberg. The papacy has survived scandals such as those under the Medici and Borgia popes right up to today’s litany of abuses.
Already prognosticators are projecting that the coming papacy, whomever leads it, will continue promoting a conservative form of orthodoxy. I would not be so ready to dismiss the possibilities for new directions. With a growing global majority of Catholics now in Latin America, Africa and Asia, a pope from there with all the many implications of such a choice, is possible.
Church doctrine, viewed in the short run as immutable and static, in reality has been far from it. In 1832, Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos, an encyclical or instructional document addressed to the hierarchy and intended for adherence by the faithful, condemned liberalism, democracy, press freedom, the separation of church and state and other ideas sweeping the Europe of his day.
Thirty four years later, Pius XI stated that given certain conditions it was not against divine law for a slave to be bought, sold or traded. The 20th century saw the papacy sweep away those official stances.
Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom promulgated in 1965, recognized the reality of development within the tradition of Catholic social teaching. It acknowledged that the doctrine of the Catholic Church can change.
Dr. Ethna Regan, a Holy Faith Sister and head of the school of theology at the Dublin City University in Ireland, writes in a paper I recently received that “the responsibility the Church carries is that of ‘reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.’”
Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics.
The second to last section of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from the Second Vatican Council includes this quote: “For the bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything dividing them. Hence, let there be unity in what is necessary; freedom in what is unsettled, and charity in any case.”
Many difficult, world-shaping issues must be addressed by humanity during this next papacy. This will demand an engaged global dialogue.
Benedict XVI, as an archbishop, adopted the motto “Cooperatores Veritatis” or Co-operators of the Truth. May we be seekers of truth in our time and even more act on those truths to bring about a just, peace-filled and environmentally healthy world.
Four Whitehorse churches will be hosting an Ecumenical Social Justice programme this Lent. It begins on Tuesday, Feb. 19 at 7:30 p.m. in Hellaby Hall at the corner of Elliot Street and Fourth Avenue.
The KAIROS video “Remember the Land: Global Ecumenical Voices on Mining” will be screened, followed by a discussion on our call to environmental stewardship. All are welcome.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.