I watched this past week, along with many around the world, the new ceremony of a papal retirement, complete with helicopter, Mercedes, and waiting summer castle for the now "pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth." And I will wait and watch as the Cardinals gather for the conclave, the process to determine who among them should lead the Catholic Church from this point forward.
Any selection of a new pope is an historic event and one that usually occurs infrequently in one's lifetime. The historical, liturgical, and ceremonial curtains shrouding the process add to the sense of mystery and yes, even, holiness, that seems to surround the conclave and its actions. The public awaits for the sign of smoke to appear from the small chimney atop the Sistine Chapel - hoping for the white smoke signaling that a new pope has been selected.
Yet, this time is different in so many ways - right from the very beginning. Yes, first, we see a pope "resigning" - stepping down - "retiring" - not keeping his papal title until death as every pope has done before him in almost 600 years. And yes, this comes at a time when the leadership of the church is swirling amid investigations, accusations, rumors, confessions, and even further resignations of leaders for moral conduct issues.
But, as an almost life-long active"church" (non-Catholic) member (of various Protestant denominations), as growing up with a best friend in the Catholic church and given the opportunity to attend Mass with her family and finding great peace in the liturgy and sense of holiness I experienced, as a full-time lay worker in the Lutheran church for more than 10 years where I found a close connection through the liturgy and communion to the spirit I felt in my early experiences in the Catholic church, as one who now identifies herself comfortably as "spiritual but not religious" having not found another church home after serious issues with leadership in the Lutheran church, and having now married a hubby who says he is often referred to as a "cafeteria Catholic" as he officially finds the church to be his home, but is not in agreement with many significant issues, we are both watching and waiting through this conclave with many greater expectations.
We are hopeful that this will be a time for significant change in what we would like to call our church - what hubby still calls his church. I can't call it my church yet as right now as that would require for me to acknowledge that my first marriage never existed (an annulment, not a divorce) and that my dearest three children were not born in wedlock - I could never agree to that. My hubby would have to agree to the same regarding his first marriage and his son. We will not abandon our children for the sake of the church. Yet, in order for me to commune and be one in community with the Catholic Church as it exists right now - that is what is required. I can, and have, attend mass - and yes, the liturgy still draws me and moves me. But when I am not welcome at the table, I feel cut off from my Lord - and from the community that surrounds me. This is a major change we hope the new pope will embrace and lead the church through.
The other point I struggle with greatly is the exclusion of women leadership within the church. In my adult years with my church journey, this is an exclusion I have experienced and "traveled" through first-hand. My early experiences with the Lutheran Church were through the Missouri Synod, an ultra-conservative group which does not permit women in leadership (no women pastors, no women elders in some churches, and in some congregations, still women not having the right to vote). This was such a difficult road block for me, along with several other conservative stances, that when first presented with the invitation to be confirmed into the church prior to my first marriage, I declined. A few years later, following the birth of our first child, and upon meeting a much more liberal and open-minded pastor, I agreed to join the church. However, when our growing family's journey took us on a move to New York, we discovered an even more liberal LCMS congregation where women in leadership were welcomed and encouraged, and communion was open to all. I knew at that point there could be no turning back for us, and when several years later we found ourselves back in the Midwest, we sought out the more liberal ELCA, the Lutheran Church which ordains women, welcomes all to the table, and now, as of 2009, is a body of welcoming congregations - ordaining LGBT men and women.
You can imagine our hopefulness when we heard the news that Argentinian Cardinal Leonardo Sandri spoke out saying,
"The role of women in the world has increased and this is something the Church has to ask itself about...They must have a much more important role in the life of the Church ... so that they can contribute to Church life in so many areas which are now, in part, open only to men ... This will be a challenge for us in the future."So, yes, we are, along with much of the world, watching and waiting, with greater expectations this time. Will a new pope mean status quo for the Catholic Church? Or will this truly be a chance for a new Church, a Church for the 21st century, a Church ready to embrace everyone and call all who will listen. We are listening.