If I Were Pope

Eugene C. Bianchi

If I were elected pope, I would throw a six month party-seminar at the Vatican. We would slip off our shoes, unloosen our collars and roll up our sleeves, bringing in musicians, poets and other writers, artists of all sorts and, of course, dancers. We would eat and drink well (Chesterton’s sense of Catholicism: laughter and good red wine, benedicamus domino. Enough sack cloth and ashes; our theme: nil humanum a me alienum. We would invite artists and dignitaries to join an early morning papal jog (or brisk walk) down the Via della Conciliazione and around Castel San Angelo (of course, we would doff ceremonial garb and use it only at ceremonies); on nicer days we would climb the Janiculum and jog around Garibaldi ’s equestrian monument and that of his lover. The Swiss Guard would provide color and security. While we engage in this bodily spirituality, we would also have daily seminars on how the church could extend the vision of Vatican II’s “The Church in the Modern World” in the present world context. To deal with issues of poverty and injustice and war, we would hear not only from theologians and moralists, but also from the best minds in economics, commerce, politics, ecology and other disciplines; successful practitioners in these areas would join intellectuals. We would also invite the best people in conflict resolution.

After this six-month party, refreshed in body and mind, I would ask that all church leaders have their letters of resignation on my desk by nine a.m. on the next Monday morning. Not that I would fire everybody in one fell swoop, but I would want to instill a lesson from both Jesus and Buddha that all is impermanent and that we must look to the lilies of the field who neither sow nor reap nor climb ladders of ambition. The six month party-seminar would be a preliminary to calling for a worldwide ecumenical council that would not be named Vatican III but Earth I, since it would take place in Rome and in five other cities, representing major international venues, over a period of about six years. The new council would take up the unfinished business of Vatican II, dealing with both issues internal and external to the church. Earth One would be made up of representatives, clergy and laity, elected by the faithful in various national and regional churches. Clergy and laity would have equal powers of deliberation and voting. Representatives from all major world spiritual traditions would take an active part in Earth One.

In terms of internal church reform, Earth One would explore these three areas among others: (1) Structural renewal from the top down, (2) Updating of the sexual teaching of the church and (3) the enhancement of spiritual life. This numbering does not indicate levels of importance; all three areas should be tackled at once. Here are a few themes I would push as pope in dialogue with those preparing Earth One:

(1) Structural Reform. In general, changes should reflect democratizing tendencies found both in early church tradition/theology and in worldwide developments of the last two hundred years. This is premised on the belief that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the “secular” world as well as through the church. (a) major change and decentralization of the papal curia which would become a circle of coordinators with representatives (lay and clerical) elected from dioceses and regions around the world; revise the duties and purposes of the present Vatican Congregations with the assistance of experts in organizational design and implementation; term limits for service. (b) election of all bishops by the clergy and laity of their dioceses with 10 year term limits for bishops; election of the pope by representatives selected from the worldwide church (this would substitute for the present College of Cardinals which I would be abolish in my first motu proprio decree as Pope Eugene I); ten year term of office for the pope; all bishops including the pope must retire at 75. (c) the re-institution of a married priesthood as well as women priests; celibates as monks, nuns, brothers and priests would continue in their orders and explore new ways of including other laity in their work; no one would be ordained a priest until his or her 40th year after they had shown maturity in many life experiences in Christian communities (this would have a major influence on correcting the sexual abuse crisis and greatly improve the quality of the ordained ministry); priests would be trained as leaders in spirituality and pastoral service, leaving financial and other tasks to qualified laity; many lay persons would also participate fully in the spiritual ministries of the church; Earth One would study the lay-clerical divide that has in many instances led to undesirable clericalism; the council would renew the sense of the discipleship of equals in ministry among clergy and laity. This would require an in-depth analysis of the clergy-laity distinction regarding the spiritual ministries of the church, examining whether the priesthood as presently understood represents a true grasp of the ministries of Jesus; (d) local and regional churches would have much more autonomy to plan, determine and execute their gospel ministries according to their own cultural needs. Canon law would be revised to reflect these and other changes.

(2) Sexual teaching of the church. In light of the best scientific knowledge on human sexuality as well as insight from the key themes of Christian spirituality, Earth One would reconsider and revise the teaching of the church on all sexual topics. This would include but not be limited to such issues as personal sexuality, birth control, divorce, abortion and homosexuality.

(3) Spirituality. Christian spirituality should not be seen as a category separate from all the above topics, but rather integral to, motivating and suffusing all of them. (a) Liturgy and sacraments. Earth One would study the unfinished business of Vatican II in reforming the liturgical and sacramental life of the church. It would note both positive and negative developments since Vatican II. In general, the council would strive to adapt liturgical and sacramental forms to contemporary needs and understandings, revisiting those areas where the liturgy is still stuck in theological and philosophical worldviews of past eras, worldviews that hinder our understanding of the spirituality of Jesus and of other spiritual masters. Modern biblical studies have improved our awareness of the religiousness of Jesus. Earth One would seek to allow creative adaptations of liturgy and sacrament to diverse cultures. (b) Contemplative spirituality. Earth One would attempt to balance the present overemphasis on group liturgical activities in Christian worship with a restoration and extension of the contemplative life. The council would bring together the best western and eastern teachings and practices on meditation and prayer. “Eastern ” here includes not only the contemplative life of Eastern (Christian) Orthodoxy, but also of Hinduism, Buddhism and other wisdom traditions that have delved deeply into meditation and contemplative spirituality in general; for example, the Sufi mystics. Much could also be learned from various forms of ecological or nature mysticism. On the whole, the Christian churches have largely ignored the mystical potential in all humans and its development as an essential part of a rich inner life of mature holiness.

Earth One would also examine issues of peace and justice, poverty and oppression, education, human rights and ecology as noted above in the party-seminar discussion.

If I were pope, I would try to launch these ventures with lots of room for evaluation and correction along the way. Would I also have to sleep with one eye open in the papal palace where the ghost of Lucrezia Borgia still roams? And since I would happen to be a married pope, I wonder if the Vatican still has in storage the bigger bed that Lucrezia’s father (Pope Alexander VI) used?