THE announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he would be stepping down on Feb 28 has shocked 1.2 billion Catholics as well as world leaders, particularly in nations with diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
The Pope is not only the Vicar of Christ and supreme Pontiff. He is also the head of state of the world’s tiniest nation, the Vatican, and has the second largest population (think Catholics), only after China.
As the Successor of St Peter, the Pope also holds the title of Bishop of Rome. The primacy of the Bishop of Rome is an ecclesiastical doctrine concerning the respect and authority that is due to the Bishop of Rome from other bishops and their sees.
The Roman Catholic Church attributes to the primacy of the Pope “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered”.
Malaysia, which established diplomatic relations with the Vatican just two years ago, is also watching developments in the Catholic hierarchy closely.
Why, there are more than a million Catholics in Malaysia too. And the Catholic Church in the country has grown increasingly vocal on a number of issues of national interest.
I read with interest the editorial in a national daily which stated that, “it is not wrong to say that the Pope has to be even more diplomatic than world political leaders in charting the course of his office. It is indeed a heavy cross to bear”.
Surely, we will never be able to comprehend the immense burden of the papal office.
The issues confronting the Catholic Church, from the baggage of history to the challenges of the future, are many. Heavy are the responsibilities for the man chosen to take up the cross after Pope Benedict.
As I write this, there is an ongoing email discussion among several of my former classmates on the Pope’s resignation. As a matter of interest, we are all Sarawakian Catholics living in different parts of the world.
It started with a friend from Vancouver who asked for our thoughts as the matter has been on his mind since the Pope’s announcement.
He lamented the declining number of churchgoers among younger North Americans and Europeans.
He wrote that “in Vancouver, the diocese spent thousands in advertising to attract the lost flock. The church that I attend each Sunday is packed mainly by Filipinos and other Asians. This is sad”.
“I hope the Church’s hierarchy has the wisdom to choose the next pope from Asia or Africa, if it is to remain viable. It seems the church is still very much controlled by the Italians,” he added.
In an immediate reaction, a friend in Hong Kong said he viewed an interesting discussion of the Pope’s resignation on BBC but chose to ignore the comments from the politicians on the TV programme. We can only guess what the politicians are saying.
A priest in our group advised us to read the Old Testament in order to understand human nature better. He warned that wealth and materialism almost always draw people away from God. However, suffering draws people back to God.
On the local front, he said that it was unfair to blame some bishops if they do not take up issues of social justice and chose not to delve into politics.
Many prefer to concentrate on the spiritual mission — that is to get people closer to God, the Kuching-based priest explained.
Recently, Catholics had expressed their disappointment publicly at Kuala Lumpur Archbishop Murphy Pakiam for keeping quiet over the Bible-burning issue.
From Singapore, another friend wrote that bishops and the church must have a hand in politics, albeit indirectly.
“After all, politics determine policies which affect the common people,” he pointed out.
“Jesus never taught us to be docile, sit back and be ridiculed when things went wrong. He chased the gamblers and cheats out of the synagogue and reprimanded the hypocrites.”
A friend in Kuala Lumpur exhorted us all to pray that the Cardinals who will gather together to elect our new Vicar of Christ may be filled with the Holy Spirit and be enlightened to vote the person that Jesus Himself had earmarked to be his new Vicar.
“Let us also pray for this new Pope to be filled and strengthened by the gifts of wisdom, understanding and courage to guide the Church and all God’s children in the way of Christ, especially in the midst of the current challenges including the absence of the divine in many spheres of human life today,” he said.
As for me, I salute Pope Benedict’s sincere and honest decision to step down from his high office.
In a nutshell, he was telling the whole world, “I’m unable to perform the duties and responsibilities any more. Someone has to take over.” The hallmark of a great leader eh!
I believe Pope Benedict also did not want to die in office and spare the world the agony of watching him suffer on his death bed. How could we ever forget the pain we shared with John Paul in 2005?
It does not matter to me whoever becomes the next pope — Italian, Asian, Canadian, American or European again. I stand corrected in stating that the church is a political minefield too and Cardinals involved in horse-trading are not unheard of during the conclave.
At one time however, Cardinal Jaime Sin was my favourite choice after John Paul first got seriously ill. The Archbishop of Manila was the only cardinal I had the chance to interview as a journalist. He was my hero for his role in rallying Filipino Catholics against the despotic Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
Together with a group of Malaysian journalists, I sat down with him in Manila in 1987, a year after Marcos was ousted.
Unfortunately, Sin also died the same year as Pope John Paul II — in June 2005, two months after the Pope.
While Pope Benedict’s announcement was breaking news of global proportion a few days ago, the attention of the world is now turned towards his successor.
I’m confident that as soon as we see white smoke billowing from the chimney in the Sistine Chapel, the Church will move on well with the new Pope.
As a Catholic, I believe and I have faith that will be so.
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