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Oxford locals discuss Papal legacy

By Chris Curme
On February 18, 2013

Last Monday, Pope Benedict XVI, leader of the Catholic Church and over one billion Catholics worldwide, announced his intent to abdicate the papacy Feb. 28. He is the first pontiff to resign in over 600 years.

"[I]n today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith... both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," Pope Benedict said in a statement released by the Vatican Monday.

Peter Williams, professor emeritus of comparative religion and American studies at Miami University, said Benedict XVI's move carries more weight than just historical precedent.

"Benedict's nod toward his own mortality may well be interpreted as humanization, which, in a way, undermines papal uniqueness," Williams said. "[The pope's resignation] indicates a crack in the mystique of the papacy."

He added that Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope elected since 1522, which upset another enduring tradition, further broken by German-born Benedict XVI.

Rev. Jeff Silver of St. Mary Church in Oxford said the pope's decision was a responsible one.

"As much as I admire [Pope] John Paul for dying with his boots on, if you're already slowing down: the world doesn't," Silver said. "And to keep on top of one of the largest organizations in the world you have to keep on top of yourself."

Silver characterized Benedict as a scholar and a bookish man who was reluctant to forego an isolated, scholarly life in order to lead the Church.

"I'm not surprised, given some of Benedict's lines in the past-including before he became pope-that he was willing to step down," Silver said.

The shortlist of papal successors is an object of great interest and speculation, not unlike the treatment of presidential candidates in the United States, according to Williams.

"[To Catholic clergy], the cardinals are moved by the Holy Spirit [when electing a papal successor], yet to the outsider, it is a political process," Williams said.

Silver said no result of the conclave of the College of Cardinals would surprise him.

"If it's difficult to read the mind of a pope, it's even more difficult to read the minds in a room full of cardinals," Silver said. "All of these electors were elected by either John Paul or Benedict, so you can imagine they'd have a very similar mindset to those two popes."

Williams, also mentioning the conservative nature of the cardinals, cited the College of Cardinal's overwhelming Italian makeup as further reason he doesn't expect a radical change in the papacy.

However, one can never be certain of how a man will use the papacy, according to Williams. Pope John XXIII was elected in 1958 as a seemingly docile pontiff, yet upturned the Church when he unexpectedly convened the Second Vatican Council, Williams said.

"Often, when the Church is in a time of great change, it seeks stability," Silver said. "It doesn't always get it. When John XXIII was elected, they thought he was a caretaker and he upset the whole apple cart."

In the mire of sex scandals and threatened Catholic allegiance in Latin America, specifically, much rests on the shoulders a current pope, according to Williams.

"Talk about-in a sense-an unwanted promotion," Silver said, referencing the enormity of a current pope's duty.

Considering increased demands on the papacy in the modern world and blossoming Catholic populations in Africa especially, Silver said he would personally like to see a fresh pope chosen from an under-developed, under-represented part of the world.

Young Catholics, a demographic Williams and Silver said the Church is trying to reach, are feeling energized by a change in leadership.

"I would love to see a pope elected from a burgeoning part of the Catholic world," Miami University first-year Eric Whitley said. "Especially if he were relatively young-I don't feel as if many people felt a connection with Benedict."

Williams and Silver said that a new pope must be pragmatic in dealing with problems that arise in a fast-paced world.

Williams said he would not describe the Church as ever having been particularly pragmatic, and links that aloofness and hierarchical Euro-centrism to slowly shrinking Catholic populations in Latin America.

"There's a cultural shift going on," Silver said. "It's going to take another generation for us to perhaps find more stability, or we may find less find less stability, depending on how the world culture changes."

Regarding how a papal shake-up affects American Catholics, both agree that little change is likely to be seen.

"If the new pope is ideologically a replica of his predecessor, business as usual will continue," Williams said. "American Catholics, since Vatican II, have become independent of the institutional Church."

"People do not feel the sense of obligation they used to," Silver said. "There isn't the sense that the faith community is my only community."

Until the mid-20th century, communities almost completely revolved around churches, especially among immigrant populations, in a time when people didn't often travel far from home, according to Silver.

Echoing Williams' musings on an out-of-touch Church, Silver said Catholicism's future hangs on its ability to meaningfully engage the individual. Today, participants in the faith are more educated than ever, and must be allowed access into a somewhat removed Church, according to Silver.

"We need to find a more cogent way of stating our teaching than just 'Father said so,' 'the bishop said so,' or 'the bishop of Rome said this is what we must believe,'" Silver said. "We must find a way to bring people to that more profound thought. That's also a change."

Whether Benedict's successor will act to advance such change from an enclaved city-state buffered from time-God only knows.


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