If I had told them I was leaving Methodist ministry because I was burned out, or that I'd been having an affair, or embezzled funds, they would have know how to react. They had categories for that type of information. Bad categories, certainly, but categories nonetheless.
But there was no category for this. "You're becoming (long pause) Catholic?" It's almost like they were thinking, "Can you do that?"
Since the Pope's announcement yesterday morning, I have a similarly confused reaction. Part of the frustration for me in the Holy Father's decision is simply not knowing what to feel. In the death of a pope, we know what to feel; there are categories for those emotions--sorrow, gratitude, solemnity--as well as a sense of closure. With this, it just feels so anti-climactic. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, or that circumstances exist in order to provide me with certain emotions. Still, there it is. It just feels strange.
I'll try to explain what I mean a little more clearly. Part of the hollow feeling for me comes in the fact that, as Catholics, we have always viewed the priesthood in more than just functional terms. Our priests don't just fulfill certain roles like preaching, teaching, visiting the sick, or presiding at Mass. A functional role of ministry is more common among Protestants, to be honest, who don't have a sacrament of Holy Orders and who ordain (those denominations that do ordain) their clergy primarily to perform certain tasks.
Not to stir another hornet's nest, but that is why the ordination of women seems more natural in many Protestant communions; if pastors are defined primarily by the tasks they perform, then they rightly reason that women can preach, teach, and lead worship just as well as men, then why not?
We Catholics, however, view the priesthood incarnationally; the priest is an alter Christus through his very identity, sacramentally manifesting Jesus to the community. In the confession, he simultaneously represents both the forgiveness of God and the community to the penitent sinner. In the Mass, he is in persona Christi at certain key points, embodying Christ the High Priest and offering the Eucharistic sacrifice. Embodiment matters, and thus gender matters and is not automatically interchangeable.
We also talk about the priest's indelible mark received at his ordination, such that "once a priest, always a priest" is a truism of our faith. Even a priest who has been laicized (returned to the lay state), whether by their own request or because of grave misconduct, never loses the indelible mark and can function as a priest in an emergency situation.
Of course, what is true for a priest is also true for a bishop, who represents the fullness of Holy Orders. And we've always viewed the Pope that way as well, sort of like a bishop on steroids--someone who does more than hold a particular office like some sort of Catholic CEO.
In contrast, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, recently announced his intention to resign and no one batted an eye. After all, his own predecessor is still alive and well.
But in our minds, popes aren't supposed to do this. They embody the papacy. We don't simply replace them; they are each a uniquely beloved successor of Peter (OK, a few weren't all that beloved).
Yes, I know there is room in Canon Law for this, that Pope Pius XII had a resignation contingency plan in case he was kidnapped by the Nazis, and how Pope John Paul II allegedly considered stepping down at one point. Yada, yada, yada. I'm not presuming to be more Catholic than the Pope, It is technically legit. It just doesn't feel right.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger will still be alive after February 28th--we don't know how long, and I'm resisting the temptation to read between the lines and assume he's gravely ill. But Pope Benedict XVI will no longer exist. And practically speaking, I wonder if we will ever see Joseph Ratzinger again in public before his own funeral. He will be in a cloistered community; he will not be making book tours or appearing on Piers Morgan.
In a world in which the papacy seems more demanding than ever, Pope Benedict XVI may simply be starting a new trend. Perhaps Pontiff Emeritus is a title that will be around for a while, to be shared by several men, maybe even at the same time. If so, look on the bright side; we'll at least then have a category for this.