I thought the white smoke thing was pretty cool. All this tradition, going back a couple thousand years, regarding the selection of a Pope.
In 1999, Pam and I visited the Vatican as part of a larger two-week tour of Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and stop-overs in a few other countries. In every news report showing the Vatican, my eyes go right to St Peter’s Basilica. Of all the great sites we saw during that trip, St Peter’s was at the top for me. It was just so unbelievably massive. The pictures don’t do it justice. You can walk and walk and walk inside. There are all kinds of nooks and crannies, all kinds of great sculptures and paintings to see. Totally, totally impressive. The Sistine Chapel was unbelievably cool, too, but the Basilica transcended it, for me.
The Apostle Peter himself is buried under the building, which gives special meaning to Christ’s words, “On this rock I will build my church.” We Protestants would argue that Christ wasn’t referring at all to the Basilica or the Roman Catholic Church in general, but to the Church universal. But why couldn’t Jesus have been using a double meaning? I’ll bet he was. For a long time, the Catholic Church was THE church, pretty much. But since my knowledge of church history has serious gaps, I’ll stop here, lest I betray my ignorance by saying something stupid.
It’s pretty amazing, when you think about it, that the Catholic Church has remained so conservative. Sure, there’s lots of deadness, and I’m sure there are liberal pockets (like in the USA). But in the Vatican, where the buck stops, a conservative/orthodox spirit reigns when it comes to theology. This, after 2000 years. Think of some of the Protestant denominations, like the United Methodists, and how liberal they have become in less than 200 years of existence. What is it that we can learn from the Catholics in this regard?
This summer, our National Conference will elect a bishop–the same one, or a different one. I’m sure there will be jokes about white or black smoke, as the ballots are distributed and counted and reported. Maybe I’ll make such a crack. But I must admit–there is beauty in some of these rituals. I’m sure there is plenty of allure to post-moderns, who tend to be drawn to this stuff. If all of this attention draws unchurched people to the Catholic Church, that would not be a bad thing.