I remember the Pope. He was Polish, but he wasn’t Józef Wojtyla. Not Pope John Paul II. This was a man named Kiril Pavlovich Lakota. He had been a political prisoner – Number 103592R – in a Soviet gulag. He was scooped up by the powers that be and sent on a mission, a mission to ascend the thrown of the Catholic Church and to then negotiate an end to the Cold War with China. What? You don’t remember that Pope? Well, he was in all the newspapers, magazines and movie trailers in 1968. And he looked an awful lot like Anthony Quinn.
“You gave me absolute power,” actor Quinn says as Pope Kiril, “You must submit to my use of it.”
That’s right. The Pope I remember was the Pope character played by actor Quinn in “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” the 1968 movie based on the book by Australian author Morris West. In that story, the mythical Pope meets with the premier of China who challenges him to open up the Church’s resources to aid. He considers the offer in prayer and consultation.
Then, during one of the climactic moments of the film, Pope Kiril (Quinn) removes his tiara and informs the world that he intends to give away the majority of the Church’s wealth in order to save it from chaos and nuclear holocaust. It was an extraordinary gesture of humility. But, alas, it was only a movie plot.
This week, of course, the current real Pope, Benedict XVI, now 85, resigned his post. Since the year 1415, when Pope Gregory XII stepped down as Holy Father, all other Popes until this one, have died in office. There was one other controversial resignation, in 1294, when Pope Celestine V, who, history tells us, was under the thumb of King Charles II, ruled a long way from Rome and made naive judgments while presiding as pontiff. Celestine V was the first Pope to formalize resignation. None the reports from the Vatican this week suggested the former Joseph Ratzinger resigned because there were problems in the papacy or because of he was giving in to outside pressure.
I am always haunted by the fact, however, that this Pope was a draftee in the Hitler Youth movement, serving with an anti-aircraft battery during the Second World War. Later, as the Archbishop of Munich, he headed something called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which meant he ensured doctrinal orthodoxy. It was in that role that he gained the moniker, “God’s Rottweiler,” as a religious leader holding extremely conservative views against the notion of female ordination, against permitting priests to marry, against the use of contraception, and against the suggested reforms outlined in the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. He dismissed rock and roll as a most “basic passion” and homosexuality as “an intrinsic moral evil.”
His critics suggest he is leaving the Church in a time of great turmoil. Some interpret his attitudes, including his strong belief that power of the Church remain concentrated in Rome, are out of step with the reality that Catholicism’s most loyal followers (about 1 billion people) live in Latin America and Africa. Others criticize him for falling enrolment in the ranks of priesthood and for turning a blind eye to the sex abuse scandals, illustrating, in their view, his greater interest in protecting the institution than in protecting the young people in its congregations.
To be fair, the actions of paedophile priests occurred long before Pope Benedict assumed the role of Holy Father. And the Pope’s defenders are quick to describe him as a staunch defender of Christian values in an unstable world where, as a National Post story suggested this week, “certainties about the family, the state and faith have shifted at a dramatic rate.” His faithful see him as a kind of pillar of strength in a world weakened by corruption, economic collapse, political disarray and rudderless thinking.
To me, those conditions might seem a good environment in which to exhibit broader thinking than re-instituting the Latin Mass and ignoring the realities of legalized gay marriage and multi-spiritual societies that have existed in Canada for nearly a generation.
But perhaps Pope Benedict’s departure has a silver lining. Perhaps it has given the world’s largest religious organization and its followers the equivalent of my movie Pope Kiril (Anthony Quinn). Maybe the retiring Pope will turn the Catholic Church over to a younger and (as he himself suggested) more agile and able Conclave of Cardinals to deal with the Church’s (and in a way the world’s) problems.
My guess, however, is that neither the Conclave nor the Pope will be very much concerned for the global dangers depicted in “The Shoes of the Fisherman” in 1968 or since, and that the next principal resident of the Vatican may well miss this golden opportunity for change.