The unique impossibility of the papacy

ROME -- At the point at which John Paul II began his papacy in the first volume of my biography of him, "Witness to Hope," I borrowed some thoughts from Hans Urs von Balthasar and tried to explain a bit of the uniqueness of the papal office:

"To be pope is to take on a task that is, by precise theological definition, impossible. Like every other office in the Church, the papacy exists for the sake of holiness. The office, though is a creature of time and space, and holiness is eternal. No one, not even a pope who is a saint, can fully satisfy the office's demands. Yet the office, according to the Church's faith, is of the will of God, and the office cannot fail, although the officeholder will always fall short of the mark. That distinction between the office and the man who holds it is a consolation to any pope. According to (Balthasar), it is also 'unutterably terrible.' The office reflects the unity of person and mission in Jesus Christ, of whom the pope is vicar. Every pope, the saints as well as the scoundrels, 'stands at an utterly tragic place' (Balthasar continued), because he cannot be fully what the office demands. If he tries to be that, he arrogantly makes himself the equal of the Lord. If he consoles himself too easily with the thought that he must, necessarily, fail, he betrays the demand that the office makes of him, the demand of radical love. The Office of Peter always reflects Christ's words to Peter -- that, because of the depth of his love, he will be led where he does not want to go (John 21:18)."

But if the job is, essentially, impossible the Church is not without the resources of history and contemporary experience to imagine the qualities one would like to see in the man who must, as someone must, take up this uniquely impossible yet essential task. In "Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church," published just before Pope Benedict XVI's stunning announcement of his resignation, I suggest seven such qualities.

A profound and transparent faith. The pope must be so convinced of the Catholic symphony of truth, and so transparent to it in his own life, that he readily invites others into friendship with Jesus Christ, simply by being who and what he is. The preaching, catechetics and teaching are important, but they come "after" transparency to Christ and his love.

Natural resilience amplified by grace. The pope must be able to draw from the wellspring of his prayer an abundance of energy, patience, endurance and compassion. The pope knows the wickedness and evil sins of the world in macrocosm and the sorrows of individual men and women in microcosm. The grace of strength needed to bear that burden of knowledge without being crushed by it must build on a natural physical and psychological hardiness and resilience.

Pastoral experience. John Paul II's papacy as previewed by the work as archbishop of Cracow and his successful ministry there. That model makes sense for future popes, who must have demonstrated evangelically effective pastoral leadership and a capacity to meet the challenges of aggressive secularism, which did not end when the Berlin Wall came down.

Good judgment in people. A holy, brilliant, humanly decent pope will find his ministry impeded if he does not have shrewd judgment in choosing men for high Church office, both as local bishops and as leaders in the Church's central administrative machinery in Rome.

Openness and curiosity. One of the keys to the success of John Paul II's papacy was his openness to a range of inputs from outside conventional ecclesiastical channels. A 21st-century pope must look to a wide range of information to inform his own evangelical ministry.

Courage. A timid man who sees dilemmas but not ways to address them is ill-qualified for the papacy. So is a man easily rattled by failure. Doing what is hard and absorbing the criticism for doing it is part of the essential responsibility of the pope.

Languages. In a multilingual Church, a multilingual pope is helpful.

All of which suggests that nationality is irrelevant in choosing a pope.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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