Every day when I wake up, I fumble for my phone right from bed so I can check The New York Times and get a grip on reality. When I woke up last week and saw that the pope was resigning, I thought I’d lost that grip. Everything I thought I knew about Catholicism — where tradition is tradition is tradition — was upended.
It didn’t take long to tumble down the endless chute that is the papal succession obsession. What did it mean that the pope would resign at such a tumultuous point? Who would be the next pope? What country would he be from? What kind of changes would he make?
As a news junkie, I trolled multiple outlets and read every story I could on the subject. I learned juicy tidbits, from which potential candidates Irish bookmakers are favoring to the surprising-to-me fact that U2’s Bono is not Catholic. (Maybe because he was such a universal favorite in my Catholic school days, for all these years I thought he was!)
Being the kind of Catholic who would happily welcome a Vatican III, I heard all the hype and started to wonder, too. Could this bring big changes for a 2,000-year-old planetary institution?
I wanted to know what everyone else thought of the import as well, so I polled folks around me. When I asked a relative who attends daily Mass what she thought of the news, she demurred. “You know, I don’t really get caught up in all that,” she said. “Leaders come and go. The most important thing is relationship — my relationship to other people and to God.”
Now there was a true reality check.
I was left to reflect on that reminder. We have to trust our hierarchy to choose a leader it believes fits the qualifications. But our faith should be much deeper and more personal than that — more focused on our relationship with God than our relationship with a pope.
The challenge is that our American culture remains so fixated on those at the top. (Not that the Brits are exempt, with their royals and all.) Celebrities, billionaires, politicians, and CEOs — the people with the most power get disproportionate attention (and, as we’ve seen with widening inequality in the past few years, pay).
The media, particularly secular media, reflect this cultural focus on celebrity. Their papal succession obsession is really gossip — the same kind we see in People, Us Weekly and the other celebrity magazines. The mention of superstars like Bono in stories about a papal resignation only underscores that.
Why such a cultural love of celebrities? One theory from the psychology world — the terror management theory — holds that we practice many behaviors because of our underlying fear of dying. We invest in “meaning systems” that will go on even after we die.
As Psychology Today puts it, “We love celebrities because they are an integral part of culture. They have made it in the worldview we are so entrenched in. By worshipping them (to an extent), we feel as if we are participating in this hugely important cause/belief system. And that makes us feel … like our life matters.”
As believers, it’s easy enough for us to reject that particular “worship” or cause/belief system. We don’t need to invest in celebrity culture to give our life meaning. Faith in God and in a life after this one should help ease the terror psychologists describe.
Back to the pope and the rest of us. There are a staggering 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Few will ever meet the pope. While his teachings are important to the Church, the Church will carry on as it always has from leader to leader. To get caught up in all the hype is to give away our power as Catholics, both individually and as a community.
So, resist following all the coverage of pope as celebrity. My relative was right. Our relationships — to God and each other — are the most important thing, regardless of who the next pope might be.