The Supreme Pontiff, a Jesuit, and I, a former Franciscan, have a lot in common. We have the same name, we are exactly the same age, we have the same number of brothers and sisters, and we even drive the same car, a Ford Focus, though his is blue and mine is one of the fifty shades of grey. He abandoned his real name, as I did : he became Francis, and that is the name I had to relinquish when I became Brother Leon (now I’m back to being, like the Pope, Frank). We were both ordained priests, both did post-graduate studies in Theology, both taught the subject. But we have a few differences besides our Religious Order and the color of our otherwise identical cars. He is, no doubt, a little less overweight than I, but I speak better English. Biggest difference though is that he is Pope Frank the First, and that’s what I should have been. A further minor detail : His Holiness is a non-atheist, and I am an apostate former priest become a militant atheist whose Blog is read by probably less than a hundred readers, while he writes encyclicals for over a billion Catholics “urbi et orbi”.
I think a lot about the job I surely would have had, had I “kept the faith”. (You remember the old saw : “Keep the faith; I don’t need it”.) I think in particular about the powers a Pope possesses from the moment of his coronation (or, less regally, investiture). Unless I missed something, I believe he has four unique powers, over and beyond the powers I had, and still have, myself as a “priest forever” : to forgive sin, change bread into Jesus and bless rosary beads. The Pope has the power to appoint Cardinals who thereby become his possible successor (he shares with all Bishops the power to ordain priests and other Bishops); the power to define dogma infallibly; the power to canonize Saints and declare officially, though it is somewhat hard to prove, that they are in Heaven; and, finally, a power he keeps discreetly under his white skull-cap, but which his predecessors did not hesitate to use abundantly and profitably to crusade against heretics and infidels and to finance the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s. No one talks about indulgences much any more, but they are still on the books and at the ready any time a Pope wants to reward people for going to war to kill the enemies of the Church, or for going on pilgrimage or for reciting certain prayers or making significant donations, by getting God to release Poor Souls in Purgatory, or at least to shorten their sojourn in the torture chambers of this temporary Hell.
But there are a lot of things the Pope can’t do. He can’t pick the winners at the track; infallibility has its conditions and limits. He can’t get people out of Hell, no matter how much Il Capo di Tutti Capi left to the Church. And he can’t work miracles, at least not till he dies. Like you and I, he has to count on Our Lady for that, as did his Polish predecessor who damn near croaked from an assassin’s bullet but was saved because it happened on an anniversary of one of her apparitions in Fatima.
I wonder what sort of a Pope I would have made. I have a feeling that like the Hermit-Pope Celestine V in the 13th century, famous for confirming the right of a Pope to abdicate – as did Benedict XVI – I would have been forced into early retirement or bumped off the way some nasty cynics say Pope John Paul I was. But it must give Pope Francis quite a thrill to be able to canonize his predecessors, thereby creating a precedent for his successor (“Saint Francis of Argentina” is inevitable). But I wonder if he is tempted to declare infallibly that the Sacrament of Marriage may be received as well as witnessed by Catholic priests of the Roman Rite (“received” because the priest does not administer this sacrament; the couple administers it to each other), or that it is OK for Catholics to use condoms to limit the spread of Aids and abortions and too large families. I know he never will. But if ever he calls me in for a chat about the outrageous stuff I publish in this Blog, I wouldn’t mind asking him. He is about the nicest, most tolerant guy you could ever hope to meet, which of course is the really big difference between us.