The Wholly Catholic Church? Protestants and the New Pope

Article excerpt

Poped out? After the nonstop media barrage that covered every conceivable angle both of that little chimney on the Sistine Chapel and of the papal transition--and after the invasion of the airwaves by an endless parade of Catholic talking heads, holding forth from St. Peter's Square as well as on the front steps of Our Lady of Perpetual Chatter down the street--not a few Americans seem glad to see the new Pope Benedict XVI settling in and the news crews moving on.

You would expect Protestants in particular to have been annoyed and fed up with the whole media spectacle--after all, the "protest" against Rome and the pope is part of their name and identity. But as a Catholic who married into a staunch, albeit ecumenically minded, Lutheran family and who worships in both Catholic and Lutheran churches, I was struck by the genuine interest in and concern among many Protestants for who was going to be sitting in Peter's chair and what his election would mean.

At Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Oak Park, Illinois, prayers for the Catholic Church, for the departed pope, for the guidance of the Spirit during the conclave, and for the new pope figured prominently in the Prayers of the Faithful during the weeks of the papal interregnum--as I'm sure they did in countless other Protestant congregations. And when I attended the Associated Church Press convention in Nashville the week after Pope Benedict XVI's election, the conversations with fellow editors from Protestant publications always seemed to come around to what had transpired in Rome and what it would mean for the future of the Catholic Church and for ecumenism.

Clearly much has changed over the past half-century in the Catholic Church's relationships with other Christian churches. Since Vatican II (1962-65) inaugurated a new era, the ecumenical movement has made significant progress, and the office of the papacy itself has taken on ecumenical dimensions that were inconceivable 50 years ago.

And for many people today there is no other symbol or reality that even comes close to embodying the essential call to Christian unity the way the bishop of Rome does--his many shortcomings notwithstanding. Clearly this also places a special obligation on the pope to exercise his ministry in a way that fosters and does not hinder that unity. …