Train cars in Japan often have screens that show travel information, ads and news headlines. On the morning of March 1, I was on a train and watched to see if there was anything about the retirement of Pope Benedict that had taken place that morning, Japan time.
There was a notice that a men’s clothier is going to market their wares in department stores, but nothing about the pope.
It reminded me of the end of a news broadcast when one or the other of the John Pauls was elected. The newscaster said, “And finally, something that has no connection with Japan, but is news in other countries: The Catholic Church has chosen a new pope.”
For the most part, the Catholic Church in Asia is not powerful. With some exceptions, ours are small communities. We are often perceived, when noticed at all, as some sort of foreign intrusion. Sometimes, we are hated and even persecuted. But, for the most part, we are merely ignored. Huge numbers of Asians are not even aware of the existence of the Catholic Church, let alone of our presence here.
We are blessed with insignificance.
Insignificance brings freedom. Christians in Asia need not be beholden to any political or social powers. We owe them no favors. Therefore, we are free to be prophetic critics of politics and society. We may suffer for that, but better to suffer like the martyrs than compromise the Gospel in order to protect privileges.
Privileges have a high price. When the tempter showed Jesus the whole world and said that worldly power was his to give, Jesus did not dispute that. Instead, he refused to bow down to power. Power belongs to evil. God’s way is the weakness of the cross.
This time it is not solely in Japan that news of a papal transition attracts little attention. There is a lack of interest elsewhere that is due not to insignificance, but to irrelevance. In fact, much of the world does not care about the Vatican or the papacy, even when there may be interest in the Catholic Church.
A website that tracks political cartoons lists “Trending Topics” that deal with issues that are attracting attention in various parts of the globe. The papacy dropped off the list soon after Pope Benedict’s resignation announcement, while the presence of horse meat in European hamburgers remains.
Apart from Catholic media and clergy whose job is to be interested in such matters, I have not encountered much interest even among Catholics. It has not been a major topic of conversation at post-Mass coffee gatherings nor in messages from friends.
Fewer and fewer people think that what happens at the Vatican is important to their lives or faith.
Arguably, it is power and its pursuit that has brought about this state of affairs. The world can give power, but what it has given it can take away and the result is irrelevance.
For centuries, the papacy was a player in the politics of Europe. That power began to erode with the Reformation, was shown to be a paper tiger by the 1527 sack of Rome and was totally ignored when Napoleon grabbed the imperial crown and suddenly crowned himself, just as the pope began the prayer with which he expected to do the crowning.
But even then the habits of power did not end, only their scope. In the 19th century an unprecedented centralization of papal power reached its apex with Vatican I’s declaration of the universal jurisdiction and infallibility of the pope. Increasingly, Rome became the center of power in the Church while local churches seemed more and more to be mere branch offices.
Though the Second Vatican Council called for collegiality, post-conciliar popes have actually concentrated more and more supposed power in Rome. The result has been decreased real power as people dissatisfied with abuses turn away not from Christ, but from the leaders of his Church.
Attempts to use power by “branch offices” are visible even here in Asia.
The Philippines’ bishops attempted to defeat a Reproductive Health Bill. However, power plays only work so long as people think you have power. Voters recognized and exposed the bishops as little different from kids wearing paper crowns, carrying cardboard swords and claiming to be dragon slayers. The power play failed because it was irrelevant to the situation in which people actually live.
Mere claims to power no longer work. That is a sign that the community of believers is growing up and growing closer to the Lord who defied power.
What the Church needs from its leaders is authority, not power. To speak with authority requires having the assent of the audience. That may be given because the audience respects the speaker or the speaker has power to force obedience. But, the misuse of power is causing Catholics to lose respect, and empty threats no longer provoke fear.
The so-called leaders of the Church will have to change if they are to fulfill their vocation to guide us. They will have to give up the trappings of power – Renaissance haberdashery and all – and the desire for power in favor of humble service to us all. They will have to earn the respect of Catholics, a process that will entail contrition and conversion.
That is not likely to happen soon, so the People of God will continue to find new ways to organize themselves, to listen to the Lord, to celebrate their faith, to proclaim the Good News and pass it on to the next generations with only occasional reference to the “leadership.”
Perhaps since Constantine, the leadership of the Church has opted for powerful control of the Church, and the result is that the leadership of the Church draws less attention than horsemeat.
Can the leadership of the Church move from irrelevance to insignificance, from power to service?
It may be too late for the “head office” and many of its “branches” to catch up with the rest of the People of God who struggle to serve God and the world in insignificant ways with only the power of the crucified Lord.
Fr Bill Grimm MM is the publisher of ucanews.com based in Tokyo