Over lunch today, I was reading the latest Newsweek; in particular, an article about Pope John Paul II. I know virtually nothing about the Pope and Catholicism, but this article caught my attention, because it has to do in part with the value of suffering. The world looks on, sees the obvious physical precariousness of the Pope, and there are two major and vastly different reactions. The one consistent with most of us in Protestant America is, “Good grief, when will he resign? He can’t do his job!” The other, exemplified in African Catholics, is summed up from this quote in the article: the pope is “a living presence of the very essence of Christianity, which is the cross—and resurrection,”
Suffering and the cross are most definitely NOT the very essence of American Protestant Christianity. We don’t get that the Pope is more than his function. It makes no sense to us that he would have value in suffering, value in BEING, if he can’t perform religious duties. Leadership, even Christian leadership, too often in our minds is about performance, acts, deeds, accomplishments. It’s not about the cross.
In 1996, John Paul II said, “I must lead her with suffering. The pope must suffer so that every family and the world should see that there is, I would say, a higher gospel: the gospel of suffering, with which one must prepare the future.”
This seems right to me. This seems “of God” to me. As much as Catholicism may not “get it right” from my perspective, in the area of suffering we have much to learn from our Roman brothers and sisters. I thought of the little I know about the title of “vicar”, and its relationship to “vicarious”. The Pope stands in the place of Christ. The Pope vicariously suffers with Christ, and is now figuratively doing so vicariously (!), just as Christ suffers. To what extent ought you and I vicariously suffer?
(For further reading, I’ll recommend-as I have MANY times- “Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God” (Marva J. Dawn))
P.S. Interesting sidenote: Cynicism creeps in in interesting places in the article. As the Pope’s condition deteriorates, his subordinates gain stature and power. These will be lost when a new Pope is in place. Perhaps the latest Papal pronouncements about keeping people on life support, even if in a vegetative state, has more to do with subordinates wanting to cling to power than to a holistic life stance…