The Campaign Spot

Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.

The World Stops and Watches a Chimney


I don’t write about religion often, but I’m getting some positive feedback for this section of the Morning Jolt . . .


I’m going to strike a dramatically different pose than most political reporters when it comes to the selection of the new pope: Admit that I don’t know that much about Vatican politics, the contenders, or what to expect under the next papacy.

On this, I defer to Kathryn, reporting from Rome:

St. Peter’s Basilica this morning was beautifully solemn as the college of cardinals gathered in prayer. I watched each one as he walked in, so many of them praying in front of the altar, above the tomb of St. Peter, the Apostle, and first pope. I noticed that the Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Tagle, looks even younger than I heard he did. I watched as a subdued Cardinal Dolan tended to older brothers. I couldn’t help but notice that nothing was going to distract the prayer of Raymond Cardinal Burke, the American in the Vatican court. Quebec’s Cardinal Ouellet gently fixed the miter on the cardinal in front of him. Cardinal George looked pained from his battle with cancer.

The Mass was a prayer that the Holy Spirit might truly guide the hearts and minds of the men now in the Sistine Chapel. The expression of gratitude for Pope Benedict XVI was palpable; the basilica seemed to rock with the applause, as if Bernini and Michelangelo were expressing theirs, too. . . .

Love and mercy. Knowing our roles. Living the will of God in truth. If the cardinals lead by that, shepherding a people in love with the Gospel, the world will have great gift.

One aspect of all this that I think resonates deeply, well beyond the boundaries of Catholicism, is the experience of witnessing an institution that follows tradition going back two millennia.

We live in a world in which newer is considered better than older, and the definition of “old” seems to get younger every year.

The world changes fast. Walk through your old neighborhoods, and you see buildings torn down and built upon and replaced, beloved hangouts long gone. On one level or another, most of us have had our childhood homes turned into Ultimarts. The older generation passes away, old friends move away and we lose touch. A time and a place, a mood and relationships, preserved only in a dusty photo album full of Polaroids.

Each day brings us some ephemeral distraction, sometimes pleasant, often less than that, rarely built to last or to stand the test of time. Suddenly we’re supposed to care what the Harlem Shake is, when we know that in a couple months almost everyone will forget about it. Toss it next to the other forgotten fads, next to the Macarena and the Cabbage Patch dolls.

Our political scene is a rapidly spinning wheel of rotating, rapidly replaced flavors of the month. Would you believe Tom Vilsack once ran for president? Faces come and go, burning white-hot one moment, easily forgotten the next: Howard Dean, Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, Bill Bradley. John Kasich ran for president. Pat Buchanan. Ross Perot. Jerry Brown. Tom Harkin.

And then, in the middle of all this, there’s the Vatican and the cardinals. Somehow they combine immense theatricality — there’s a reason that all of the networks have sent their anchors to do live shots from St. Peter’s Square — with a methodology that is from another time and place. They don’t issue a press release, they don’t release a YouTube video, or send a tweet. All around the world, people watch for smoke from a chimney.

And barring some massive leak, we never hear how it went inside. No declared candidates, no campaigning, no vote totals. The past few weeks you’ve heard the easy jokes projecting American ideas of leadership selection — attack ads, debates, super PACs — onto the conclave.

The Church is not a democracy, and that factor probably exacerbates some problems — a sense of not enough accountability, or a leadership that feels distant and out of touch with the daily life of the faithful Catholics around the world. But it is stirring to see an institution that places something above popularity. We’re a world that revolves around public relations, job-approval ratings, television ratings, page views, and so on, and here’s an institution that says, “sure, we want to be popular and reach every soul . . . but we’re not going to compromise our principles to do it. In fact, we’re not going to compromise on any of our most unpopular ideas. We focus on being morally right, and we have faith that everyone else will come around to our way of thinking.”

And then, of course, I also had this serious and insightful contribution to the public discussion:

Tags: Religion


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