SideLines: Protestant ponders the papacy

It’s funny how these things work out sometimes.

I was at my local library, looking for something to read. For a lot of people, their favorite time to read is during the summer when, as the saying goes, “The living is easy.” I like to read during the winter when it’s too cold to do much living outside.

I was looking for one book when another happened to catch my eye: “The Making of the Pope 2005” by Father Andrew Greeley.

Even though I’m not Catholic, I’ve always been fascinated by the papacy. Catholics believe the office of pope dates back to the New Testament when Jesus told one of his apostles,  Simon, “And I tell you that your name is Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18.)

As someone who is also intrigued by elections of any kind, I have often wondered how the cardinals select a new pontiff, which they do in complete secrecy. Judging from Father Greeley’s book, there’s apparently a lot more that goes into it than I would have thought.

I was doubly intrigued when I heard that Pope Benedict XVI was resigning at the end of the month for health reasons, the first pope to do so for more than 600 years. Which means a new pope will be elected, reportedly before Holy Week.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the next pope will be the 267th in history. After St. Peter, the second pope was St. Linus (67-76).

Pope Pius (1846-78) served the longest term, 31 years, 7 months, 23 days. John Paul II (1978-2005) was second with 26 years, 5 months and 15 days.

The pope who had the shortest reign was Urban VII (Sept. 15-27, 1590), who served just 13 days, three less than Boniface VI in April of 896.

Pope Benedict IX served three different periods as pope between 1032 and 1048, the only one to serve more than once. Depending on which source you use, he may have also been the youngest pope ever. The Catholic Encyclopedia reports he may have been between 18 and 20, although some historians claim he could have been as young as 11, which is hard to believe.

It is known that the oldest pope was Clement X (1670), who was 79 at the time of his election. In 1878, Pope Leo VII became the oldest pontiff to pass away; he was 93.

The most common name for pope is John, which 23 pontiffs have chosen. Other popular names, in order, are Gregory and Benedict, 16 each; Clement, 14; Innocent and Leo, 13 each; Pius, 12; and Stephen, 10.

A few hours after Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement, a bolt of lightning struck St. Peter’s Basilica. Many people, of course, thought that was just a coincidence. However, I’ve heard some speculation that it was a sign from God, either that he disapproved of the announcement or that he was signaling the start of a new era. That may be essential for large parts of Europe that are going through a “post-Christian” era, in which people feel God is no longer relevant.

Whatever it was, it’ll be interesting to see what happens.

Although it’s traditional to signal the election of a new pope with white smoke, I wonder if it might be more appropriate to do something else, like shoot off fireworks, not only in Rome but all over the world, all at the same time. That would definitely signal the start of something new.

But that’s just me – a Protestant.

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