With Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he is resigning and with the conclave to elect the new pope beginning soon, all eyes are on Rome. Both religious and secular news sources have spent the last two weeks making sense of Benedict’s surprise announcement and speculating about the papabili. Who will the next pope be? Could the next pope be from the Global South? How will the new pope respond to the challenges of post-modernism? The scandal of abuse which continues to plague the Catholic Church?
I admit that I’ve been sucked into the media coverage and the Catholic blogosphere in the two weeks since Pope Benedict’s decision to resign has been made public. I’ve spent more than my fair share of time reading editorials, taking in statistics on global Catholicism, watching youtube video by commentators of all kinds, and listening the speculations of Vaticanistas about the upcoming conclave.
However, instead of offering my personal take on all that is going on, I want to share a few words to balance out all the emphasis on Rome. Certainly leadership matters. Certainly these are historic days that bear our attention and prayers. But both in the realms of worldly and ecclesial politics, we do ourselves a disservice and disempower ourselves when we overemphasize the role of leaders and underemphasize the rest of us.
One of the major ecclesiological themes of the Second Vatican Council is that the Church as the People of God. Yes, the Church is an institution, but the Church is also a community, the whole community of the baptized. I think of the thousands of people I have met over my years of volunteer service, parish ministry, and involvement in various Catholic organizations. Kate who serves as a congregation-based community organizer working to improve access to services for the poorest and most vulnerable in our local community. David who helps ex-offenders reintegrate back into society after completing their prison sentences. Eladio and Juanita who visit and pray with Spanish-speaking immigrants in the hospital. Carmen, Paula, and so many others who work to provide educational support for children in rural Nicaragua. Mary who finds joy in accompanying people with disabilities in a L’arche community. Michael who works to organize people of faith to abolish the death penalty and uphold the dignity of human life. Father Paul who tirelessly ministers to newly-arrived immigrants and helps them to adapt to US culture while maintaining their faith. Jen who – despite her frustrations with the hierarchy and hectic schedule working full-time coordinating service opportunities for college students – makes it to Mass with her two young children every Sunday.
The litany could continue – certainly you could add many names from your own experience. This is the Church, the People of God, living out lives of service, justice, charity – as lay people, married and single, young and old, as vowed religious, priests and deacons – around the world. As James Joyce wrote, “Catholic means ‘here comes everybody.’” With all the pomp and circumstance of the conclave, the smoke and ringing bells and vestments, let’s not forget that the church is all of us.