Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Tale of Two Popes: Catholics, Copts and the Spirit That Binds Them

Pope Francis I, conclave, Roman Catholic Church, Jorge Mario Bergoglio
Pope Francis I
by Sebastian Faust

Yesterday, the Roman Catholic Church selected a new pope. The world turned its attention to Saint Peter’s Square, where Pope Francis I stepped out onto a balcony and greeted the crowds. He wore a simple cross as he prayed with the people, and then offered them his blessing.

But before ever he emerged, as I watched the white smoke rising over the Vatican, and the bell of Saint Peter’s Basilica was ringing, I was reminded of the choosing of a different pope; it happened late last year. 

On a Sunday in early November 2012, the Eucharist was being shared inside St. Mark’s Cathedral, situated between palm trees and the city streets of Cairo, Egypt. A high vaulted ceiling arched overhead like the dome of heaven; below, a throng of people filled the cathedral past overflowing – outside, the crowds covered the balconies, the stairs, flooded down into the surrounding streets. 

All through the liturgy, an ornate box sat upon the altar, something out of place on any other Sunday – inside were three pieces of paper, each inscribed with a different name. One of these three would be the next pope.

The rites that surround the selection of the pope in the Coptic Orthodox Church stand in contrast to those that we witnessed yesterday in the Vatican. There, in the Sistine Chapel, 115 cardinals met in conclave, walled off from the world in order to conduct the sacred affairs of the church. Though they are free to choose the next pope from outside their own number, doing so would break a tradition that has stood for over 600 years. 

Sequestered inside the chapel while in conclave, the cardinals convene and vote for their next leader, until someone proves able to attain the two-thirds supermajority mandated by church law. A millennium ago, after they had made their choice, there was required the consent of the lower clergy and the laity before the investiture; now, it is the choice of the College of Cardinals alone. But how different it was in November of last year, when the Coptic pope was chosen. 

St. Mark's Cathedral, Cairo, Egypt, Coptic Orthodox Church
St. Mark's Cathedral
There, the selection process included not only the highest body of clergy, but extended out through the laity. (Both men and women take part in the process, which is notable considering that the Coptic Orthodox Church is a highly patriarchal faith.) This is true both of the nomination process and the actual voting. Clergy and laity offer nominations for the next patriarch and are allowed to challenge nominees if they feel their former behavior speaks against them. And when the list of names is finalized, both groups vote together for those they feel are most suitable. Yet when this voting is done, they still have not chosen the next pope. Instead, the candidates have been narrowed to three - three names, on three pieces of paper, placed inside a box on the altar of St. Mark’s Cathedral.

For three days, the faithful have been fasting. For three and a half hours, the Divine Liturgy is observed. Three aspects of the Divine are invoked: God is beseeched to lead his people, the Son draws near to them in the mystery of the Eucharist, and it is asked that the Spirit will descend upon the community. 

And when the Divine Liturgy is completed, there comes a little child forward to the altar. He is five years old; he trembles slightly as he stands before the congregation. The names are taken from the altar and placed within a chalice, and the child is draped with a blindfold. From the chalice he draws a name – the next shepherd and patriarch of the faith.

It’s the Sorting Hat of Pope-Making. It’s drawing straws. It’s casting lots. It’s Pope Powerball. But, to be honest, I just like this. I like it a lot. 

What I like so much about it is that it goes out of its way to make room for the Spirit. Drawing names from a chalice is an analogue to the replacement of Judas, when Matthias was chosen by lot to be the twelfth apostle. The broad inclusion of the laity and clergy in the voting process is reminiscent of the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. There’s room for hearing God’s voice speaking through God’s people; there’s room for God slipping into the material world, moving through the physics of chance and guiding the choice.

There’s just such beauty there. There’s a beauty to leaving space for the divine, for an outside force to interact with our decisions – an idea that is often so terrifying to us. There’s something in this seemingly anachronistic action that is beautiful, something mysterious and profound and sacred, and so foreign to our Western mind.

But as much as I love this, as much as I love this more than the conclave we saw yesterday, I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that I think the College of Cardinals is some flawed, second-rate system. And that isn’t because I’m so post-modern as to avoid value judgments, or that I’m trying to appease my Catholic friends. 

Coptic Orthodox Church, St. Mark's Cathedral, selection of pope, pope
The selection of the Coptic Pope
The election of Pope Francis I was a process that itself made room for God; as I phrased it before, the voice of God speaks through the people of God. And the discernment that comes by the Spirit plays itself out in the choice that is made. We shall see what the future brings with Pope Francis I leading the flock, but his first address to the faithful brought me nearly to tears. He showed himself to be a gracious man, a man of humility, and rich in compassion. He showed himself attentive to his people.

During his discourse, Pope Francis I made a lovely homage to that former practice of the consent of the laity. As he came before the crowds in St. Peter’s Square after his investiture, he led them in prayer, and then came a remarkable moment: he bowed to the laity gathered there; humbly, he asked them to offer their prayers for him, and then he grew silent, a silence that lasted and lasted, drawing out so long that when he spoke again, I realized I had been holding my breath for a very long time.

In his first address to the world, the Pope made himself a servant of the people; he made acknowledgement of the communal nature of this endeavor, and in so doing, the Pope made room for God.

Sebastian Faust is an avowed heretic, armchair theologian, and a self-styled canary in the coal mine of pop culture. He lives in Nashville with his dog Watson and what sounds like a family of squirrels that have squatters rights to his attic. If you'd like to follow Sebastian on Twitter, you can't, because he doesn't understand technology.

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