The Pope announced his intention on laying down his burden on 11th February, World Day of the Sick, feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. The see of Peter will fall vacant at 8pm on Thursday 28th February. The Conclave will meet in mid-March, and if the modern trend continues, we may well have a Pope the next day – maybe 17th March will be the day. Thus so far the timetable is shaping up.
Naturally there were good reasons for the Pope to announce his resignation in advance. It gives people time to prepare, and it gives the Pope time to prepare for his departure from the Papal Apartment. It also means that the Cardinals, who must elect his successor, have an added two weeks to think, reflect and pray – or as some people would love to put it, to jockey for position, to intrigue and to campaign. And there lies the disadvantage of these two weeks and a few days: the media coverage, which abhors a vacuum, will do its best to fill this space.
This represents both a challenge and an opportunity for Catholics.
The challenge will be in having to watch the airwaves fill with a whole load of people who are very marginal to Church life, and yet who will be invited to pontificate on all matters Papal and religious, giving it their own particular slant, which they will advance as a mainstream view. I haven’t yet seen Hans Küng grace our screens, but he is just the sort of person I mean: a man whose theology is greatly at variance with what Catholics believe, and yet who will perhaps pop up as a Catholic expert. And yet we all, in a funny way, like Professor Küng, and we have grown used to him over the years. The milk of human kindness may however turn sour at the sight of the lawyer who was interviewed on Newsnight last night, a man who has apparently written a book about the Pope, and who seemed to promise, with his reference to General Pinochet, that the Pope could expect to be harassed in retirement by lawyers like himself wanting his arrest on unspecified charges. Whereas Professor Küng is a theological critic of the Pope, as is his right, this lawyer seems to be a professional Pope-hater, which is rather different. I fear we may see more of that.
But there is an opportunity too. The BBC has to maintain balance. So for ever Pope-critic or Pope-hater, there has to be someone who is Catholic, at least in theory. And here some excellent Catholics who get the call to appear on Newsnight and other programmes will have the opportunity to put the case for the Church – to let the Church appear as it really is, not as the professional Pope-haters would love it to be. We must wish them well in their task – for many of them it will be a descent into the lions’ den – and pray unrelentingly for them.
Incidentally, the Catholic commentators will have one huge advantage. The Papal election to come, even though it really only features a tin chimney pot as its only visible sign, really is the greatest show on earth. I am almost tempted to fly out to Rome and stand in that Square! But more on that another day.