Posts Tagged ‘Council of Trent’

imageOn Creating a Cardinal

In a few days Pope Francis will “create” a new group of cardinals.  I’ve always been a little ambivalent about that word “create,” since it conjures up the story of creation from the Book of Genesis.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and Genesis asserts that God created them out of nothing.  That’s a vivid image, meant to emphasize both the imagination and the power of God as Creator.

But when popes have “created ” cardinals they’ve usually had a little more to work with than God did.  Flesh and blood humans have stood before the pope.  With all their talents and faults they’ve stood there, and most popes haven’t been entirely clueless about what they were dealing with.  Most have also had some vague idea about what they wanted to accomplish in appointing them.  Still, the history of papal management of cardinals and the curia is a bit like the history of herding cats.  Popes never knew exactly how these guys would turn out once they put on the red hat.  Sometimes there have been pleasant surprises, and sometimes they’ve gotten exactly what they wanted.  But not a few times in the history of this business there have been a some nasty surprises.

imageAs readers of the New Testament are well aware, neither the Gospels nor the Epistles devote a single word to the concept of cardinals.  What the Acts of the Apostles does reference is a Christian community that grew in size and complexity, and so arose the need to deal with an ever-expanding workload.  The first instance of such improvisation was in the appointment of deacons.  Jesus had scarcely ascended into the clouds when the apostles chose deacons to take on a lot of the administrative work.  The job description included the care of widows and orphans, the collection of alms and the management of the financial resources of the Church, and such like.   Quite naturally, and justifiably, the apostles decided that time needed to evangelize left them little time for those sorts of activities.  Thus deacons became the inner ring of an ever-expanding network of ministry within the Church.

imageIn time virtually every bishop had to have such an administrative corps to take care of an ever-growing diocese.  Sometimes they borrowed from existing Roman practice, and the term “diocese” itself is lifted right out of the Roman administrative lexicon.  “Curia” was another of those words.  Every bishop had a curia, and every bishop of a diocese does so today.  That often comes as a surprise to many people, who tend to think of The Curia at the Vatican as the only and one true curia.  Not so.  It never was unique; but because we assume that was the case, we give it a reverence all out of proportion to its real function.

Through the centuries the growth of papal government saw the department heads within the curia take on special responsibilities, and eventually the cardinals emerged as the stand-out figures in the curia.  In the Middle Ages this same group assumed the additional responsibility of electing the pope, and ever since then the cardinals have retained the exclusive right to do so.

imageA lot of ink is being spilt these days in anticipation of the stamp Pope Francis intends to leave both on the curia and on the college of cardinals.  Happily, some of the speculation is well-grounded.  Sadly, some of it is ludicrously ill-informed, to be charitable about it.  What is largely absent from the discussion is any sense of historical perspective.  Whenever I hear commentators apply terms like “first-time ever” or “never before” to the Church, I immediatley think of rock music’s equivalent word — “forever” — as in “our love is forever.”  That, of course, means that “our love will last at least a day or two,” which roughly corresponds to the historical memory of a great many commentators both within and outside of the Church.

This situation does not arise from a lack of worthwhile texts to read, because there’s plenty of good stuff out there.  I was reminded of this recently when some good friends sent me for Christmas a book I had been coveting for weeks.  John O’Malley’s recent tome entitled Trent: What Happened at the Council (Harvard University Press, 2013) touches on some of these very issues.  While sections of the book might be a stretch for some readers, he pitches it deliberately for the non-historian who would like to learn more about a pivotal episode in the development of western Christianity.  I recently finished it, and I recommend it to any who would seek a context to many of today’s issues in the Church.

imageIn a later post I want to return to some of the issues that O’Malley raises, but for the moment I want to satisfy myself with his occasional references to the cardinals and the papal curia in the 16th century.  Suffice it to say that if you think that Pope Francis is dealing with issues that are unique to our time and the worst in the history of the Church, it’s because you’ve been reading from the pages of the myopic writers.  Throughout his text O’Malley cites great cardinals like Charles Borromeo and others who pushed along the reform of the Church.  Thwarting them at every step of the way were other cardinals and curialists who held onto their influence or lifestyle or power at all costs.  And we’re not even talking here about the naughty cardinals.  Nor can we begin to guess what was going through the minds of the two teenagers on whom Pope Pius IV conferred the red hat.  In an otherwise decent record as a reform-minded pope who helped complete the work of the Council of Trent, Pope Pius remains a bit of an enigma.  Who knows what he thought these kids might bring to the table when it came to the future of the Church.  But God works in mysterious ways.

imageSome have argued sagely that the very survival of the Church through such horrid times as the 15th and 16th centuries is proof of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  While O’Malley does not make that point explicitly, he does suggest that the reform and the vitality of the Church in the centuries after Trent was due in no small measure to individuals who went out on the proverbial limb and risked everything for the vision of a Church reformed.

What emerged from Trent, in addition to volumes of documents, was a simple yet straightforward expectation that I think runs through the mind of Pope Francis.  On the eve of the Council of Trent not a few priests and prelates led less-than-stellar lives.  For decades after Trent many had absolutely no desire to change anything.  What the Council of Trent did produce, however, was a simple expectation that slowly took root.  Nothing less than a devout personal life and attention to pastoral duties should be the expectation of each and every member of the clergy.  That goes for deacons, priests, curial cardinals and even popes.  It’s not about them or their personal glory, because it’s about the people they serve.

If you want to understand what Pope Francis hopes from those men who will stand before him in a few days, it may be as simple as that.


+On February 15th I witnessed the wedding vows of my nephew and his wife at Saint Mary’s Church in Tulsa, OK.  It was a nice event, and I was a little awed that four priests and one deacon gathered around the altar.  I was far from being the one who came the greatest distance, since the bride’s grandparents flew in from Milwaukee.  But the prize for distance travelled went to the brother of the groom (also my nephew) who flew in with his wife and two-year-old son from Amman, Jordan.

+On February 13th Bishop Donald Kettler visited Saint John’s to lead a student discussion on The Catholic Church, Politics, and Social Justice.  Since he came from Alaska to the Diocese of Saint Cloud last fall, Bishop Kettler has made four visits to Saint John’s, and as an alumnus of the University we are always delighted to welcome him.  In the picture below Bishop Kettler stands with a former neighbor from Alaska, who is now a freshman at Saint John’s University.

image+On February 15th Abbot John clothed Robert Kirkley as a claustral oblate in the Abbey.  For ages we’ve had an oblate program for those wishing to associate themselves with the prayer life of the Abbey; but they live outside the Abbey.  On rare occasions, however, we have welcomed someone to live as an oblate within the monastery.  Before coming to Saint John’s Brother Bob lived in the Houston area and taught chemistry at San Jacinto College.  Prior to his investiture he lived for a year with us as a candidate.

+We are on the verge of leaving behind the coldest days of winter, and we won’t miss them.  But as an example of how previous generations of monks dealt with the cold, I have enclosed pictures of a ceramic stove, still housed at the Benedictine abbey of Reichenau in Germany. In addition to conducting heat, the lovely tiles portray various saints.  I suspect they provided meditation for the monks as they huddled around the stove for warmth.

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Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 092How’d the Pope Do?

The shift from actual journalism to “news entertainment” in recent years has transformed the way we learn about events.  Talking heads now spend a few seconds reporting on an event.  Then they get about the business of canvassing opinion from people who scarcely know what they are talking about.  The more off-the-wall the comment, the greater its power to amuse or enrage.  That’s good for ratings.

An event like a papal retirement is a perfect case in point.  Reporters have waited breathlessly for six hundred years for this to happen.  So you can forgive them for a bit of fuzziness on the facts.  I’ll also concede that specialists on the history of papal retirement are in short supply.   However, the inclusion of any and all opinions — no matter how ridiculous — suggests the priority is to entertain, rather than to inform.

Take, for instance, the newspaper report that “more than 120 cardinals will gather in Rome to elect the next pope.”  Since current Church law caps the number of electors at 120, this was a factual error, albeit a minor one.  To my knowledge the paper printed no correction, but I praise the editors for not taking this to the next level of controversy.  Armed with this new bit of data, someone could have penned a fiery editorial demanding to know why the election is restricted to 120.  Given that I am not well-read, that editorial may already have been written.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 018Then there have been the gratuitous appraisals of Benedict’s term as Pope.  Perhaps the most egregious of them came from the Swiss theologian Hans Kung.  In a piece in The New York Times he laid out an incontrovertable fact: the most promising thing Pope Benedict had done  during his entire papacy was to visit with Kung one afternoon.  I’d like to think that Kung intended to answer a different question: “what is your fondest memory of Benedict’s papacy?”  But alas, I have to take Kung at his word when he claims that the acme of Benedict’s papacy was his visit with Kung.

Of course the letter served to remind me that Kung was still alive, unless it was written posthumously.  But where was the de rigueur interview-in-the-street survey?  Someone should have asked puzzled pedestrians whether they agreed with the Pope or with Hans Kung.  A typical answer?  “Hans Kung, hands down!  Who’s Hans Kung?”

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 065I also couldn’t figure out how to process the various evaluations on Pope Benedict’s exercise of power.  Kung stated categorically that Pope Benedict had reverted to an imperious style of monarchy, not seen in the Church for a thousand years, more or less.  Since so many others have complained that Benedict had failed to act decisively on practically everything, I wondered if we were all thinking about the same guy.  Could both views be right?  The nice thing is that when facts don’t matter, then everyone can be right.  Everyone gets a trophy — except the Pope, of course.

On most of this I profess no opinion, save that I’m happy to hear that Hans Kung is still in the land of the living.  As for Pope Benedict’s on-the-job performance, I’ll leave that to the experts, whoever they are.  But when it comes to the fulness of papal power, I do have an opinion.  As a historian, I’ve actually read a book on the topic.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 010First off, about the only people who believe that the pope exercises absolute monarchical power are Hans Kung and the newspapers.  Not for a minute have the curial cardinals ever believed that, and I’m surprised that no one has bothered to ask them about it.  Of course when the cameras are rolling and the pope is in the room, they generously defer on any and every issue — and the smallest ones especially.  Then, when the room is empty, they get back to the daily chores of running the Church.

I don’t say this to be cynical or facetious, because I actually do subscribe to the decrees of the Council of Trent.  That was the 16th-century Church council that put its stamp on the organization of the Church.  The canons of Trent sought to establish a balance of power in the Church, so that no one pope or no one cardinal could set up his own dictatorship or run away with the store.  How did they do this?

Trent produced an organizational chart that for its time was a model of efficiency and the envy of many European governments.  Vatican business was divided into departments, called dicasteries, each headed by one cardinal and a small board of two or three other cardinals.  Each cardinal sat on two or three boards, but could only chair one.  This forced them to work cooperatively.  If you were the ambitious type, your chances of being elected pope increased if you worked amicably alongside your peers.  It stands to reason that the cardinals did not want to elect a would-be tyrant or a crazy man; so the default was set to elect people of poise and talent, who also had a record of collegial behavior.  And if by chance a newly-elected pope tried to make himself all-powerful, the cardinals could dig in their heels.  No one wanted to return to the age of the Renaissance popes.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 008This system tends to be a model of efficiency and continuity, and therein is its strength.  That also happens to be its weakness.  Few absolutist popes have emerged in the last five hundred years, because the cardinals have been there to prevent runaway tyranny.  But in times of crisis, that same Barque of Saint Peter can be very slow to turn.  And when the executive is weak or in ill health, there is little to hold in check one cardinal who wants to be first among equals.  Nor is there anyone to prevent the bureau heads from acting like a herd of cats, each doing his own thing.

That’s the theory behind papal government.  It has generally worked well, though on occasion it can be clumsy.  I’m not about to offer my evaluation of how this government worked during the papacy of Benedict XVI, since I’m saving my comments for when CNN and Fox News call me up.   But I will extrapolate and offer this bit of reflection.  Since all of us already know how the pope should exercise power, there’s no point in going on about that.  Instead, I’ll shift to a topic about which most of us are clueless: the exercise of our own power.

Many if not all of us have power, even if we think we don’t.  Each of us has the power to influence others.  By word and example each of us has the power to build people up or tear them down.  An encouraging word to a young person can make a difference that lasts a lifetime.  A careless or cruel remark to someone can  hurt them for years to come.  Each of us has the capacity to take action, in a way that will get others off the fence and act.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 041All these are ingredients that contribute to good and bad leadership.  But they are also some of the elements that go into a good life.  These few items can help determine whether we make any difference in our own world, or whether our absence will matter to anyone.  I’m hopeful that I’ve used what talents I have to make some little difference in the lives of others.  And I hope the same is true for you.

My advice on power stops there, and happily Pope Benedict needs no further advice from me on that subject.  But advice on his retirement is an entirely different kettle of fish.  So here goes.  First, now that you finally have some time to read, don’t believe everything you read.  Second, even though you used to Twitter, don’t believe everything on the internet.  And lastly, now that you are retired, get a membership in AARP.  They have great travel deals and insurance, and they don’t run surveys on how the pope did.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 015Notes

+On Feburary 27th I drove to Minneapolis to attend a meeting and to do some errands.  The high point of the day was lunch with a very good friend of mine.  The low point of the day?  Being stuck in traffic in downtown Minneapolis.  This was no ordinary traffic jam, because it began early in the morning when a tanker filled with milk overturned in the Lowry Hill  Tunnel, which tied up traffic for most of the day.  The word on the street is that it took a crew of 3,500 cats nearly eight hours to lick it up.  Cats will not be hurried.  Only in Minnesota.

+On Feburary 28/March 1st I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On March 2nd I presided at the Abbey Eucharist, and preached a homily that I’ve entitled The Prodigal Son, Revisted, which is included under the heading Presentations.  My earlier sermon, Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, has become the most visited page in the history of my blog.  There  must be a lot of prodigal sons and daughters out there — or brothers and sisters of prodigal sons and daughters.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 095+Also on March 2nd, Brother Walter led a crew in the tapping of one thousand maple trees in the Abbey forest.  Spring is just around the corner, and the ritual of making maple syrup has been a treasured memory of the monks at Saint John’s for generations.

+On March 3rd I presided at the Abbey Mass and delivered a sermon entitled Lent, a Pilgrimage of Self-Discovery.  I’m not sure I was back from the previous day by popular demand, but I got out of the Abbey church alive and in one piece.

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