The other night Bob Dole was a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart . I stopped and watched because I was taken by what a great sense of humor he has. That was not my impression of Bob Dole back during President Clinton’s first term. Back then, Bob Dole was the humorless Republican party attack dog who condemned whatever it was that the President and the Democratic Party were up to. This role did him a great disservice when he was nominated as the Republicans’ candidate for President in 1996. That was all we really knew of Senator Dole at the time and, during his campaign for president in 1996, we saw more of the same.
Yet, the light-hearted banter he shared with Jon Stewart on the show the other night reminded me of the last presidential debate before the election. Dole—perhaps having conceded defeat—appeared more relaxed and (a little too late) his humor really came through. Perhaps it didn’t win him many votes, but I know it won him at least one. By the time I reached the polls, that glimpse of the other Bob Dole was enough to tip my uncertainty about who I would vote for.
Now, I didn’t get to vote for Pope. And, if I had, I must admit that I probably would not have voted
for Cardinal Ratzinger. But it seems to me that there are some reasons to hope that Cardinal Ratzinger will surprise us. Of course, I don’t think we’re likely to see Pope Benedict XVI appearing on the Daily Show any time soon (though I expect he’ll make an appearance on South Park soon enough). Perhaps Pope Benedict XVI will prove to be like Bob Dole—before he was doing back flips in Pepsi commercials and appearing on the Comedy Central—a man defined by his role.
I do think it’s somewhat shortsighted to expect that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger will handle the Papacy the same way he headed up the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith. I also think it shows little faith in the power of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of the mystical body of Christ to jump to the conclusion that his election is somehow the death knell for the Church or its engagement with the modern world. Pope Benedict is an intelligent man with a critical mind. He sees the complexity of things and is sensitive to the needs of the world, perhaps to a greater degree than his previous job allowed or betrayed.
The Church belongs to Christ, and will flourish in spite of the human limitations of its members. So, I have great optimism and confidence for the future of the Church under Benedict XVI, and whoever his successors might be. I find, just a few days after the election of the new Pope, that my disquiet has far less to do with the person chosen than it does with the fact that someone else is wearing John Paul’s clothes! Though I was already 11 years old when John Paul II was elected, he is, effectively, the only person I’ve ever known as Pope. He was a great hero of mine and his passing didn’t really sink in until I saw Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, walk out onto that balcony. Maybe the shock and disquiet that many of us feel is not so much that the new Pope is someone about whom we think we know so much, but that the seat of Peter is no longer occupied by “our” Pope, John Paul II, who shared so much of himself with us?