The Roman Catholic cardinals who will select a new pope for the Catholic Church officially have convened in Rome. Sometime soon, a waft of smoke will appear from a little chimney atop part of the Vatican, signaling that a new pope has been selected. Black smoke means there has not been a new pope chosen and the cardinals have retreated to vote again. White smoke signals that Custer has been defeated at the Little Big Horn.
Actually, white smoke signals that a new pope indeed has been chosen, and that he will soon step out onto the papal balcony above Vatican Square to meet for the first time the tens of thousands of anxious Catholics below, gathering just as their parents and grandparents have done for generations stretching beyond a millennia.
Just as quickly, the rest of the world’s 1.2 billion other Roman Catholics will hear the news, and some of them will just as quickly run to their bookie to collect on their betting correctly on the newly named pope.
Current odds for those so inclined include Angelo Scola of Italy (currently at 6:5) and Odilo Scherer of Brazil (at 7:5, due to his South American bearing, even though he lacks a Latino surname), along with Irish North Americans Timothy Dolan (3:1) and Sean O’Malley (7:3). At least three papal candidates are regarded as prohibitive bets due to their ethnicity or gender. However, if one of those is chosen, it will surely be regarded as a miracle, and everyone wins anyway.
I remember, in 1963, many of the Catholics whom I was in grade school with came to school crying. The Mexican kids were especially upset. Pope John XXIII had just died. I thought it was the end of the world for me, too, even though that was the first time I’d ever heard of the pope. I knew Mormon kids had their prophet, and we Greeks had the guys in big hats who never spoke English, but I had no idea what a pope was. A few days later, the Catholic kids were all rejoicing at the naming of their new pope, Pope Paul VI.
Then, in 1978, came Pope John Paul, for all of 33 days. He was quickly followed by Pope John Paul II, who reigned until he died in 2005, after which the recently resigned pope, Pope Benedict XVI, walked out onto the balcony following that most recent waft of white smoke. In the past 50 years, starting with John XXIII, I’ve been aware of five popes, and soon six. At the same time, other major religions have changed leadership at an equal rate. The first Mormon president I was aware of was David O. McKay, and the first Greek Orthodox leader I remember was that other guy in the black hat who also didn’t speak English but who had a shorter, darker beard.
Today, I look around and wonder what all the hubbub is about—and I say that as a person who does indeed attend Sunday church services, albeit at times with my fingers crossed (you might, too, if you were part of the local and warring Greek Orthodox community). Starting in 1963 and counting just some of the fun times I’ve had (with no credit nor blame to religious leaders) here’s what’s occurred since then: President Kennedy assassinated. The Vietnam War. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated. The Killing Fields of Cambodia. Mama Cass choked on a sandwich. The Marines killed in Lebanon. The Middle East crisis, and then the next one, and then the next. Kosovo. Iraq. Afghanistan. Idi Amin. Starvation all over the African continent. South and Latin American murderous cocaine wars. Murder rates off the charts in the United States. Sandy Hook Elementary. The pain, plague and pestilence wrought of being subjected to the Utah Legislature. And on and on and on.
I guess it begs the question: Could it possibly have been worse without religion?
When the new pope emerges, he will have the support of those 1.2 billion fellow Roman Catholics—except when it comes to birth control, abortion, homosexuality, the death penalty and a few other untidy matters not unique to the Roman Catholic Church. The same can be said for the LDS and the Greek Orthodox, too. Growing numbers in all three religions are anxious for new visions and new ways to express and share their faith.
They should start with homosexuality. It’s pretty clear, given the public records of former religious leaders now in prison for any measure of sexual abuse, that it’s OK for a gay man to become a priest, but those same religions are all askew when it comes to faithful—and nonsexual predator—gay parishioners. That doesn’t make sense. Where are the female priests? An eye for an eye? Really? Always? It’s all up to interpretation anyway, isn’t it?
The Roman Catholics might take a page from their former partner in Christianity, the Eastern Orthodox Church. Yes, they were once one church, you know. Here’s how the Greeks work it out: They don’t. If you overlay the Greek Orthodox of North America hierarchal chart on top of that of the Mafia, they would line up quite accurately—just change the titles. Dons become metropolitans and capos become priests, and all that each of them cares about is money. You could probably use the same diagram for most religions.
Saving souls? That’s for no one to know—the wonderful mystery of faith. Savings accounts? A Greek Orthodox priest in America can make upward of a $150,000 salary, plus tips. Yes, tips—pay to pray, or baptize, marry or whatever. When it comes to religion, it’s not the black smoke or the white that matters, it’s the green.