They wait on his word

A recent trend Ive noticed in the Catholic blogosphere is afascinationsometimes bordering on obsessionwith the public pronouncements ofPope Benedict. The global reach of theInternet has allowed every homily, Angelus address, speech, or off-the-cuffremark to be quickly translated and disseminated.

There is no denying that Pope Benedict is a man of uniquespiritual and intellectual gifts. As afriend of mine wrote to me recently, Benedict leads me to prayer. When I readhis writings, I find myself praying and being opened up. My friend recounted a story aboutthen-Professor Ratzingers 8am lectures in Munster being filled with townspeople whocame to listen on their way to work. When the lectures ended, many would remain in their seats praying.

So it seems almost churlish to question whether thisfascination with the Popes public statements is a good thing. But question it I shall. Because the problem is not the Pope, butrather the lack of any other Catholic voices of comparable stature.

I was thinking of this the other day when I was preparing mypost on St. John Chrysostom. When onelooks back at the 4th and 5th centuries, one is struck bythe number of bishops who had the kind of public profilealbeit on a smaller scalethatBenedict has today: Ambrose, Augustine, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory ofNazianzus, John Chrysostom. To be Bishopof Rome in those days was not to be the sun around which lesser bodies merely revolved. As Eamon Duffy once observed, it is not the normal state of things for thepope to be the Churchs chief theologian, evangelist and legislator all rolledinto one.

One of the clear intentions of the Council Fathers atVatican II was to reaffirm the centrality of the episcopate in Catholic ecclesiologyafter several decades (one might even say several centuries) of papal maximalism. But 40 years after the Council, the pope remains something of a solitaryfigure, floating above the episcopal college rather than firmly embedded in it.

The reasons for this are varied and even those who agree onthe problem may disagree about the cause. Some point to the poor quality of episcopal appointments made during thelast pontificate and the impact of the sexual abuse scandals on publicperception of bishops. Others argue thatthe national episcopal conferences have made it harder for individual bishopsto develop distinctive voices. Stillothers note that the fascination with the pope is a result of forces within themass media over which the Church has limited control. There are many fine bishops who preach andinspire their flocks, but who do not make the news.

I dont know what the answer is. Surely it is not that Pope Benedict shouldhesitate to share the fruits of his prayer and reflection with us. We would be the poorer for that. But as my aforementioned friend put it, Myhope is that Benedict can provide a distinctive voice that allows otherdistinctive voices to flourish. That will be my prayer as well.

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