Saturday, March 31, 2007

Maybe not such a good idea

I was watching the well-made documentary Witness to Hope, about John Paul II, on EWTN the other day. One bit of history caught my ear especially: when John Paul held his first audience with the assembled cardinals after his election, he broke with tradition, which would have had him sit while the cardinals, one by one, walked up and knelt before him as an expression of their subordination and obedience.

Instead, he reportedly said "I will receive my brothers standing". And he did.

What could be more gracious? What could be wrong with such a magnanimous gesture?

Nothing -- throughout much of Church history. But in the context of his time, and in retrospect -- perhaps a lot. Because symbols mean a great deal, and traditions are often not just dead habit, but embodied wisdom.

Imagine you're a certain cardinal of a major American diocese who prefers to go his own way, paying no heed to orders coming out from Rome. If you have to go up to the Pope and kneel, wouldn't you think "Wow, I guess this means I have to obey this guy"? But if you get to walk up to him and not kneel, but just stand chatting like equals, wouldn't you think "Great! He's practically saying he's just another bishop! And by the way, brother John Paul -- don't tell me what to do in MY diocese, OK?"

After the chaos and drift of the '70's, we needed a re-establishment of authority. Keeping with tradition might at least have given John Paul higher ground from which to begin that work. Instead, in a gesture coming no doubt straight out of his great and good heart, he stood -- and in a stroke, the Church found itself starting lower than ever in its climb out of that miserable ditch dug by those who distorted Vatican II.