Over the course of this week, I’ve asked a small and completely unscientific sampling of evangelicals whether or not the Pope was the most important Christian alive, and every single one of them hemmed and hawed. After said hemming and hawing, every one of them tried to construct an argument that each Christian is the most important one, usually starting it by arguing in favor of “you and me.” In the end, the argument that each Christian is as important as the next tends to sputter and die under the weight of its own unreality, and not merely because of the looks I give the speaker (I asked at least one person via telephone, and the result was the same even though he couldn’t see my incredulity when he tried to forward the idea that we were as important as the Pope). The problem is that trying to argue that I (or probably you, but we’ll stick with me) am even remotely as important as the Pope is laughable, and trying to make the argument on my behalf gets awkward pretty fast if you actually know much about me.
The Pope is the most important Christian in the world. As I’ve learned, many evangelicals will try to wiggle their way out of that statement, but I’m standing by it, and adding that this is why his resignation and forthcoming replacement should be a subject of intense prayer, even by those of us who reject his authoritarian claims.
Last weekend – before Benedict XVI gave the most shocking two-weeks notice in global history – he was a topic of conversation briefly at a gathering I attended of 10 evangelical seminary graduates and students, and the table generally agreed that Benedict had been a bit disappointing because of his apparent disinterest in Catholic-Protestant rapprochement. Ignoring the recurring sight of evangelical narcissism when the Pope comes up (I’m more important that the Pope! No? Well… he’s doing a bad job because he’s not wooing me hard enough!), I found this conversation telling.
For one thing, consider the complaint of the evangelicals at the table. Why should we care whether or not the Pope is seeking reconciliation within the church? We care because – in spite of the evangelical tendency to ignore history and other traditions – the Bishop of Rome is supposed to be the head of the whole church. For 1500 years, nobody really disputed that. Orthodox and Copts may have disputed how that headship should play out (for the record: they still do), but until we came along, the church acknowledged the importance of the Bishop of Rome. As good Protestants, the historically educated seminarians at the table still want their protests to be heard, the church to reform, and the world’s Christians to be united. And since nobody has more power to drive that process than the Bishop of Rome himself, the evangelicals at the dinner party feel sad that the Pope hasn’t led in that way. In a sense, the complaint says more about Protestant longing to re-unite the church than it does about Benedict XVI.
Another point of interest about that conversation, meanwhile, is the fact that I can’t imagine a group of similarly educated Catholics knowing enough about any one evangelical by virtue of his office to have an informed conversation, let alone reach a consensus about his job performance. You might argue for Billy Graham, I suppose, but what exactly is his office? Evangelicals have celebrities, but we don’t have official leaders in the same way, and we don’t have anyone that 1.2 billion people – one-sixth of the planet, for crying out loud – will follow. The Pope’s profile and the extent of his influence are unmatched by any other religious figure, to the extent that 10 Illinois seminarians have an informed opinion about a German theologian who mostly publishes in Latin. This is unparalleled.
Even if, dear reader, you’re one of those evangelicals, the ones who would quibble over whether or not the Pope should rightly be considered a Christian at all, you must admit that we generally allow people to declare themselves Christians or not, and the Pope’s status is not in question in that respect. Moreover, since the entire world keeps tabs on where he goes, what he does, and what he says – and since this is all attributed by both the Pope and observers to his ministerial obligation to represent Jesus – his every action is scrutinized as a symbol of what we believe. So even if you retain a 19th Century bias against Catholics, you must admit that the Pope matters. He represents both Jesus and you to the world, whether you like it or not.
The evangelical tendency to treat us all as though we’re equal is touchingly democratic and perfectly valid if we’re measuring the value of a person. But when it comes to impact, importance, and responsibility, we are by no means all equal. You can only control the actions of one Christian – yourself, obviously – and that’s why God will only judge you for what that one Christian does. The Pope’s control extends to billions, and I have to think the actions of those billions will factor into his judgment. His life is nothing like your life. The Pope is more important than you are, and he’s more important than I am. He’s simply more important than any other Christian.
So with Benedict XVI cleaning out his desk, don’t give in to the temptation to merely watch events in Rome unfold. Pray. Pray for the Holy Spirit to guide the Cardinals in choosing a new Pope. Pray for the Cardinals to listen. Pray for the ability of whoever is chosen to shoulder the heavy burden of the Papacy. Pray for the new Pope to work to unify all Christians. Pray for the man regarded as Christ’s vicar on earth. He’s an important guy, and he could use it.