I must confess that I know very little of the history of the Catholic Church. I couldn’t name 5 Popes. Oh, I know something of the Vatican, the incredible art that lives within its walls etc. but as far as the business of the church, I am clueless. But on the rare occasions when it’s time to elect a Pope, I become fascinated.
First there’s the red-robed Cardinals walking around in circles chanting stuff and looking terrible solemn. Then there’s the walk over to the Sistine Chapel where the security detail guards dressed in the coolest uniforms ever lock the doors, shielding the 115 cardinals from the outside world. Once inside these fine feathered gentlemen will take 4 votes a day until there’s a two thirds majority agreement. Once agreement is reached on the next infallible man, a hastily erected chimney on the top of the chapel will belch white smoke as a sign to the faithful that a new Pope has been chosen. Now, let me tell you, these Catholics can teach the rest of us a thing or two about drama!
Can you imagine the Southern Baptist Convention going through these histrionics to elect a new…what do you even call the head of Southern Baptists anyway? First of all, you probably couldn’t get 115 Baptists to agree on a building to be locked away in, besides which, it would take two years to pick the 115, for fear that some annoying moderate might slip through the cracks. And, can you imagine those 115 Baptists being able to keep a secret long enough to start a fire to break the news to the world? Half of them will have tweeted the results within 15 seconds of the vote! Oh, I think the head guy is called the President.
Anyway, the Catholics have always done pageantry better than anyone. The most dyed in the wool atheist alive would feel some sense of reverence upon entering the Sistine Chapel, for example. Regardless of one’s theological proclivities, there’s something overpowering about the profound reverence one feels upon entering a Catholic church. They’re all so dimly lit, so magisterial, so quiet. What, with the flickering candlelight, stained glass, and people kneeling all over the place, it makes you check yourself to make sure you look presentable.
Now, I couldn’t take a steady diet of all that formality and ritual, but I have to say as a Baptist, that I do long for a more serious, humble experience in church every once in a while. Our services more resemble a Kiwanis club luncheon with all the glad-handing, laughter, and jokes flying around. “Greet someone around you who you haven’t met before, church!” the pastor extols while lively music rings from the rafters. For all of Baptist rhetoric about how God is so Holy and such a righteous judge, we sure do a lot of shucking and jiving in his presence. Most of the folks I’ve seen in the pews of a Catholic Church look like they are so deep in thought that the last thing they want to do is shake hands with a stranger. Of course, it’s always difficult to be glib and informal by candle light.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to convert to Catholicism. It’s a theological mess for one thing, biblically incoherent and just plain creepy at times, but whenever it’s time to elect a Pope, I do envy them their seriousness, their sense of history, purpose, and the grandeur of their style. They do the Glory of God better than anyone on the planet, and in 2013 there are worse things a church can be known for.