John Paul, Benedict, and the “Daley Double”

So far, I’ve rung in the New Year by being lame: sitting at home with a bad cold, drinking tea, and watching TV. One of the shows was a local Chicago documentary, Like Father, Like Son. It was about the two Mayors Daley.

For those of you not up on your Windy City lore, the bulging metropolis just north of me has been ruled for forty-three of the last fifty-six years by two blunt-spoken, take-charge men, father and son. They often looked alike, talked alike, wielded power alike, and made controversy alike. Richard Joseph Daley, elected six times from 1955 onward, died in 1976. Richard Michael Daley, elected six times from 1989 onward, will retire this spring.

They defined their city for better and for worse. The better involved a building boom, and Chicago becoming a world-class cultural center. The worse involved school problems, machine politics, de facto segregation, and associates who were on the take. But whatever you thought of them, it definitely seemed that, as writer Kathleen Whalen FitzGerald said of Richard J., “Chicago was Daley and Daley was Chicago.”

I will miss Richard M. I have either gone to school or done business in Chicago for almost ten years. It is always somehow comforting to see those signs proclaiming: “Welcome to Chicago—Richard M. Daley, Mayor.”

Heck, that’s the least of it. Public spaces in Chicago tend to sport innumerable blurbs appearing under official imprimatur, things like “Place Garbage In Cans,” “Do Not Smoke Here,” “These Are Fine Windows,” or “This Bridge Was Made From Concrete,” every last one of them prominently signed “Richard M. Daley, Mayor.”

But of course, I remember: Daley is not Chicago. Chicago is not Daley. Chicago is other, deeper, bigger. It is good to remember things like that. And I have training in remembering things like that, because I am Catholic.

When John Paul II died in 2005, it was a Daley-esque moment. Whether you were a bristling dissident or an Opus Dei loyalist, you likely shared the same gut feeling about the preceding three decades: John Paul was the Church, and the Church was John Paul.

A dominant personality, media-savvy, John Paul made himself the face of Catholicism as had nobody before him. So when he died, many of us young adults (even the liberals) sought another John Paul, albeit a more progressive John Paul. We knew of no other model.

If we were disappointed when Benedict XVI emerged on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, it might have been because of his conservatism. But it might equally have been because he was so obviously a theology professor, not cut out for the Papa Superstar thing.

In the end, I surprised myself by appreciating Benedict for just that reason. True, injustices continue apace, doctrine seems frozen, and clericalism remains intact. But, as Father Richard McBrien wrote in an October column for the National Catholic Reporter: “all the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, our clear preference remains for the personal and papal style adopted by Benedict XVI rather than that of John Paul II.”

He explained: “If the choice is between an ‘altogether smaller figure, a man of the sacristy and the lecture room,’ on the one hand, and that of ‘a giant on the world stage,’ on the other, the smaller, shyer figure wins every time. Pope Benedict XVI has had more modest designs for the church.”

The Church is the people, and the Spirit moves among us all. This we remembered at Vatican II. John Paul Superstar almost overpowered that memory. Yet Benedict, not by conceding anything but by simply being himself, is slowly and unwittingly opening a space for the Church to be Church again.

And so my meditation today is that what is good for the Church is good for Chicago, and what is good for Chicago is good for the Church. Daleys and John Pauls do make contributions, for which we thank them. However, as in the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, we the people rank ahead of them because we existed before them (cf. John 1:30), and we exist after them, too. By recalling that, we tap into both our power and our hope.

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