Saturday, March 23, 2013

Freedom from religion?

What is freedom from religion? Ever since the Canadian government recently unveiled the Office of Religious Freedom, which is intended primarily to protect the religious freedoms of minorities both in Canada and elsewhere, humanists and atheists have protested by insisting that freedom of religion should also include freedom from religion.

By freedom from religion, let me be clear, I am not referring to the separation of church and state, which is a largely American issue. Nor does it mean keeping religion out of politics. Both are beyond the scope of this post and would sidetrack me from what atheists mean by freedom from religion.

So, what do atheists mean when they talk about freedom from religion? I have selected two writers and will let them state what they mean using their own words as much as possible.

One writer explains why freedom of religion also requires freedom from religion: "You do not truly have the freedom to practice your religious beliefs if you are also required to adhere to any of the religious beliefs or rules of other religions." 

Freedom of religion should be a universal right, and not just for religious people, he argues, noting that "real religious liberty must exist for everyone, not just for themselves."

For him and many others, freedom from religion means "the freedom from the rules and dogmas of other people’s religious beliefs so that we can be free to follow the demands of our own conscience, whether they take a religious form or not."  Under the latter, he means atheists.

But he also carefully notes that freedom of religion does not mean that people are free from seeing religion in society, whether churches or other symbols of religious expression. For him, freedom of religion and freedom from religion are two sides of the same coin. I beg to differ with him on the latter point.

However, I do concur heartily that religious freedom must be for everyone. Dr. Andrew Bennett, the newly appointed ambassador who heads this office would agree with that. 

Bennet emphasized at the opening a few weeks ago that his office would defend everyone, even those who have no religion: "All people of faith and, again, those who choose not to have faith, need to be protected, their rights need to be respected. That's what this office is about." That would seem to include atheists and humanists.

Another writer has asked how the Office of Religious Freedom will be able to deal with competing groups, without seeming to favor one faith group over another. She correctly observes that protecting one group of adherents might lead to discrimination against another vulnerable group. She gives several examples, some of which involve groups that may include atheists.

Catholic schools in Ontario claim that anti-bullying legislation violates their religious beliefs because it requires them to allow gay-alliance clubs in schools, even though, according to her, about 21 per cent  of gay students are bullied compared to about 8 per cent of non-gay students. She also asks: should anti-abortion groups have the right to harass women outside abortion clinics?

She mentions a report on global discrimination against non-believers submitted to the US Department of State last year by several atheist and humanist groups. This report documents numerous prosecutions against non-believers in 47 countries, largely through blasphemy or apostasy laws.

According to the report, prosecutions of non-believers for their lack of faith or for criticizing religion occur almost exclusively in countries that favor one religion over another, or religion over non-belief. Thus the best way to protect religious freedom for all people, whether religious or not, would be in secular societies that have laws protecting not only freedom of religion but also freedom from religion. 

She interprets freedom from religion to mean being free from having the belief systems of others imposed upon people. Most religious persecution, she contends, is a product of one religion being intolerant of another religion, with both being equally intolerant of those with no religion at all. 

Atheists and humanists want to portray themselves as not having any religion. By the narrow definition they use, they are right. However, using a wider definition I can argue that every person is religious. 
Everyone has a faith, even if that faith involves the absence of a belief in a god or gods. It is still a faith or belief. Religion is much broader than it is in the list of characteristic practices that some atheists use to define the term. I will not debate this issue now, except to note that such lists mean that atheists and many humanists are excluded by their own definition, which is a questionable form of arguing. My response to them might include a quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Some atheists now have their own churches where they can experience community and ritual without faith. And atheist chaplains are available on some campuses offering students the benefits of religion without God. Atheism has become respectable -- so respectable that it has become a quasi-religion. 

One atheist even calls art galleries the new churches. He wants the secular world to imitate religion's effective use of art, literature and music. “Religions are too good to be abandoned to people who actually believe in them,” he says provocatively.

The so-called New Atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett have described at length the moral failings of organised religion, little realizing that their own position has become a religion of sorts to many people.

Dan Brown’s bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, recycles the dominant cultural narrative that depicts organised religion as complicit in institutional abuse, moral corruption and dishonesty, but his readers remain unaware of  the good that the great religions of the world have also done. He ignores the failings of atheists and humanists, not all of whom are the paragons of virtue that are often portrayed as being.

Recently I attended a symposium in which an author introduced his new book by pointing out the faults of theists. I objected to his presentation by arguing that he had set up straw men, since I could accept only one of his assertions accurately reflecting what I as a theist believe. He clearly displayed his rationalism when he responded to a question about miracles by claiming that science has not yet been able to explain them, but one day it will.

From the other panelists, who were also atheists, it was clear that they considered theists as people who were biased by their religion, whereas they had no religion and were therefore free from any such prejudice. Some atheists hold that religion is responsible for much of the evil in the world, or as Christopher Hitchens succinctly puts it, "religion poisons everything."

Religion can be a force for good in the world, and not just for evil. That it has often been used for evil should not surprise anyone. Religion is not inherently evil; people are, whether they consider themselves religious or not. Atheists and humanists are not excluded. Thus they are mistaken when they attach blame exclusively to religion. No matter how one defines religion, the problem of people who are evil remains.

Freedom from religion, as has been remarked by many atheists, means that people should not have anyone else's religion imposed on them. To escape from religion and its influence, however, is absurd. One may not like everything about the majority religion that dominates a particular culture, but one must accept it as long as those who adhere to that religion do not infringe on the rights of others.

Where rights collide, and inevitably they will, a balance must be struck. This is what those who are in favor of abortion and those against often forget. Both sides must try to respect each other's rights and not seek to make their own position normative for everyone else, whether through the use of legislation or in other ways. Then we have a tyranny of the majority. Thus Christians and others do not have a right to picket abortion clinics and harass the women who need these services. And Catholics should not limit access to birth control.

One cannot be entirely free from religion anymore than one can be free of gravity. One can deny God, but that he does not mean he no longer exists, and that religion has therefore been eliminated as an influence in society, except in a negative way. Atheists and humanists who claim otherwise have buried their heads in the sand. 

In their desire to achieve freedom from religion, they try to impose their own secular beliefs on everyone else. That is unfair. Then they are doing precisely what they do not want others to do to them. Thus it is not fair to insist that Catholics must allow gay-alliance clubs in their schools. Personally, I have no problems with such clubs, but they must not be imposed upon those who disagree because of their faith. 

Freedom of religion is a basic right that people all over the world must enjoy. Unfortunately, that right is often curtailed in many countries. However, freedom from religion is not the other side of the same coin. I have no right to impose my faith on anyone else, but atheists and others have no right either to impose their views on me or everyone else. Then they deny me my freedom.

The tyranny of the minority can be as bad as the tyranny of the majority. Atheists may claim that they are not doing that, but they do when they assert that theism must not be taught in schools since it is not intellectually respectable. That is a statement of faith, not a scientific fact. 

But freedom from religion as some atheists and humanists present it is impossible. The influence of religion is pervasive. Sometimes it is healthy and productive, sometimes it is not. Yet when atheists and humanists want to avoid the influence of religion entirely, they are -- to use a hackneyed phrase -- throwing  the baby out with the bath water. 

They see religion as entirely evil, but I do not. That is a fundamental religious difference. That is why I differ with them on the issue of freedom from religion.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Should Protestants reunite with Rome? Some personal remarks

On 31 October 1517, a then obscure monk named Martin Luther reputedly nailed his now famous 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. This action sparked the Protestant Reformation. Some scholars doubt that he actually posted these theses on the church door, but there is no doubt about what happened later. To make a long story short, Luther was excommunicated, and a breach with the papacy became reality, a breach that has persisted for almost half a millennium.

Now, after the election of Pope Francis, more than one Protestant leader has raised the question whether Protestants should reunite with Rome? This question may seem premature, since most Protestants are not ready to address this contentious issue. Yet, sooner or later, this question must be dealt with openly and honestly.

To assume that the answer will always remain negative is to deny the fervent wish for unity that exists in many churches today and is shared by many individual believers. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to even raise the question, and certainly not all the leaders of these churches who have a stake in preserving the status quo.

In this blog I cannot begin to list the many issues that would need to be discussed, much less describe them in any detail, but as an ecumenist I do want to make a few personal remarks regarding this important, yet very controversial, question.

St. Cyprian of Carthage

Reunion with Rome will take a long time. Even to use the term reunion implies a return to the Roman fold, to the mother church of which Cyprian of Carthage famously wrote, "you cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother." Cyprian's concern was the unity of the church. In his time, that unity was expressed in the Catholic church which recognized the primacy of the bishop of Rome.

This unity is confessed by most Christians in the Nicene Creed: "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church." Catholic here does not necessarily mean the Roman Catholic Church, as many Protestants take great pains to point out, even substituting "universal" as a synonym for "catholic."

John Calvin similarly described the visible church as the mother of all believers. Such language is a healthy corrective to the individualistic spirituality that pervades much of evangelical Protestantism.

Luther and Calvin both emphasized the importance of the sacraments for the nourishment of believers. Thus Calvin wanted weekly communion, although the city council of Geneva did not permit him to institute that practice.

I could not agree more with the emphasis of the magisterial Reformers on the importance of sacraments and the need for frequent communion. For decades I have longed for weekly communion. When I was warden at St. Andrew's, the only Anglican church in Moscow and indeed in Russia (since any other worship groups were supervised by St. Andrew's), I attended several communion services every week. I thoroughly enjoyed that.

Now, here in Toronto, I will often seek out a church where I can have communion on a weekly basis, but I do not always manage to do that since I have to balance that desire with the need to have fellowship with my friends in the church where I am a member.

There is an Anglo-Catholic church not far from my house where I can indulge myself on occasion. There the mass is celebrated richly:with all the "bells and smell." Perhaps I need that type of spirituality, especially as I am growing older.

However, I admit that I have a few difficulties, especially the Angelus at the end of the service. Protestants tend to diminish the role of Mary, but her role in Catholic churches, or churches that lean that way, makes me uncomfortable. This may be due to my upbringing. But on a deeper level I question the theology that underlies the prayers that invoke Mary. Thus I cannot recite them.

What does this have to do with reunion with Rome? Much, in my opinion. Somehow I resonate especially with the sort of spirituality that is found in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as in those churches that also celebrate the sacraments as elaborately. I am not the only one who has this inclination. Nor am I alone in experiencing difficulties with some aspects of Catholic theology.

I admit that occasionally I have taken communion in a Catholic church, but only when there was no danger of being recognized, since I did not want to give offence to anyone. Canon law does not permit this, as I know very well, but there were times when no other church was available.

I would like to see reunion for many reasons, not only the sacramental or liturgical as important as they are. I recognize that the pope is not only the chief pastor for 1.2 billion Christians but to the outside world he also represents many other Christians. This universal leadership would be more understandable and acceptable if the bishop of Rome would become simply primus inter pares, a first among equals, and not claim primacy over all other bishops in the world.

The Basilica of St. John Lateran. Inscribed on the wall of the entrance are the claims
of this, the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome, to be the head church in the world. 
"Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput."

This claim is central to the papacy. The pope bears many titles, including Vicar of Christ and Successor of St. Peter. Papal primacy is basic to the Catholic church. Moreover, the primacy of the Roman bishop is what makes that church Roman.  This claim is not likely to change soon, if ever.

Yet this does not mean that all Christian churches should therefore withdraw from all ecumenical efforts. On the contrary, these efforts should be redoubled, especially in the light of the (as yet small) signs of renewal that Pope Francis has already displayed.

If he would be willing to recognize that the bishop of Rome is only one bishop among many, this would go a long way to heal the schism with the Orthodox churches that became official in 1054, but had been brewing already for many centuries.

That schism might be healed sooner than that which the Protestant Reformation represents, largely because the Orthodox churches are united in their theology. The divisions that exist between them are based on ethnicity and jurisdiction. But they will insist that any reunion is a return to the Orthodox fold. In contrast, Protestant churches are divided extensively and continue to divide ad nauseam.

Aside from unification, which is still remote, churches can cooperate extensively on social justice and many other issues. Francis has described what he wants: "Oh, how I would like a poor Church, and for the poor."  Like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis has opted for the poor.That is something that many other churches can identify with and endorse. Unfortunately, on many theological issues the gap is almost unbridgeable.

Many Protestants are unaware of the ongoing dialogue on many contentious theological issues. On baptism and the eucharist, a large degree of consensus has already been achieved. My own denomination recently signed an agreement with the Catholic church involving the recognition of each other's baptisms. The chief bone of contention that remains, however, concerns ministry, especially the role of the bishop of Rome.

I wrote my dissertation on papal primacy, In it, I suggest some reforms that the Catholic church needs make. I will not rehearse them now, except to note that more than a few Catholics also promote such reforms. In fact, the time for such discussion is ripe.

What is sorely needed today is a willingness on the part of the Catholic hierarchy to discuss these reforms and to implement them. That is a tall order, but not impossible, since even the College of Cardinals is aware of the need for change. They discussed this need extensively before the election of the new pope, although they may not be ready to go as far as many Catholics and non-Catholics alike are demanding.

Yet the election of Francis can be interpreted as a signal that change is coming. Many observers had hoped for a more reform-minded pope. But I am old enough to remember the election of Pope John XXIII, who was initially dismissed as a transitional figure, but who proposed the game-changing Second Vatican Council.

Should Protestants reunite with Rome? My answer is not yet, but they should continue to ask this question to show their sincerity in promoting the unity of the Christian church. And they must continue to pray for unity.

I must not allow my desire for a richer way to celebrate communion to cloud my wish for a reunited church. But at the same time I hope that other Protestants do not question the need for unity simply because of their rejection of some aspects of Catholic theology and practice. One day reunification may be achieved. Then even Luther and Calvin might feel vindicated in their attempts to achieve reform.

Pope Francis has motivated me to pray more diligently for church reunion. I sincerely hope that I will not be disappointed in him and the signs of renewal that I have discerned.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Habemus Papam

"Habemus Papam" or "We have a Pope" is always announced from the balcony at St. Peter's Basilica after the election of a new pope. And the appearance of the new pope on that balcony is the signal that he has accepted this election. Only then does he officially become pope.

The new pope, who chose the name Francis, was announced this way and, by appearing on the balcony, he accepted his new position. He seems to be an excellent choice. His choice of papal name is very revealing. Francis of Assisi was one of the most impressive and beloved figures during the Middle Ages. He was a truly humble man, as is his namesake, who too has a passion for the poor.

But what would happen if someone who was elected refused to appear on the balcony? That is the premise of a 2011 comedy-drama which I saw a few months ago.

In this film, the conclave after many votes finally elects a pope, but he immediately develops a panic attack and is unable to appear on the balcony. However, the conclave is not considered over until the new pope has accepted his election. Thus the cardinals announce that the new pope is in prayer and will appear in a few hours, but this does not happen.

The cardinals then ask a psychiatrist to examine the pope, but that did not help. The psychiatrist has an ex-wife who is also a psychiatrist. When the pope is driven secretly to see her, he escapes and is shown in several comic scenes. Such comedy is disarming, because some elements in the Catholic church did not appreciate this film very much.

Eventually, the new pope is discovered and brought to the balcony where he announces that he is declining his position, explaining, "I am not the leader you need." Apparently only once in the history of the papacy has someone declined to accept that position. Yet one can readily understand why a person might do that.

The papacy is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. The man -- women need not apply! -- needs to be a truly spiritual person with extensive pastoral experience and at the same time an experienced CEO who can manage the Curia and the rest of the Vatican bureaucracy.

He must also be multilingual and fluent in Italian, which is the working language of the Vatican. Preferably, he should be a scholar, but not so scholarly that people are unable to understand him.

He can be neither too conservative, so that he can attract the young people and keep the older ones from leaving, nor too liberal for the College of Cardinals who have elected him and expect him not to rock the boat but to keep the church on its present course. Thus he should be careful not raise such contentious issues as celibacy and women priests.

Yet he should be able to address issues such as sexual abuse, but not offend those who may not have been diligent in dealing with the perpetrators. He must be both loving and firm. He ought to be a father figure for all the faithful.

He must be ecumenical and open to people of other denominations and faiths, yet he should be able to articulate the Catholic faith in unequivocal terms. He must also be a statesman, since the Vatican is a state -- the smallest in the world.

Above all he must be charismatic, much in the style of John Paul II. In fact, an amalgam of John XXIII, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI would be a good choice. But such a person is hard to find.

The world will soon discover what sort of a person Pope Francis is. He has been described as a very holy and spiritual person, a quality that is crucial in any pastor, especially the chief pastor of 1.2 billion Catholics. If he is anything like Francis of Assisi, he too may one day become a saint. But he is not a saint yet.

He is a Jesuit, which makes him suspect in some Catholic circles and even some Protestant ones, since this order was founded during the Protestant Reformation to counter Protestants, and has been repeatedly banned by the Catholic church and then reinstated again. The Catholic church has a long history.

The personal history of Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, makes fascinating reading. Yet from this history it it difficult to determine what the new pope will do in the future.

All his life he has been concerned for the poor and is a fervent advocate for social justice. He has lived a life of austerity, for many years using public transportation and preferring a simple bed in a small room, where he cooked his own meals, to the ornate church mansion where John Paul II stayed when he visited Argentina.

Yet he has been reprimanded for the inability of the Catholic church to do more when thousands of Argentinians were kidnapped and killed. He has apologized for this failure, but many people are still very angry with the church, and refuse to attend anymore.

Crowd in St. Peter's Square waiting for the new pope to appear

Francis has his job cut out for him both at home and abroad. He will have to confront many difficult issues in the years that are left to this 76-year-old pontiff. He will need divine help to make the necessary changes and accomplish some much needed reforms.

Christians everywhere should pray for him that he may exercise his pontificate with great wisdom. As already mentioned, the papacy is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. No one would have blamed him if he too had refused to accept his election and had said, "I am not the leader you need."

But he did accept. Now his burden is very great. Pray for him and the Catholic church!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Death of a (saintly?) dictator

Death is the one certainty in life. The mortality rate of the human race is 100%. Dictators are no exception, as Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, has discovered. His death was a long time coming, yet it was inevitable as the "baseball-sized tumor in his pelvic region" that continued to ravage his body, in spite of many medical interventions.

His death sparked an orgy of emotions, not only by the poor who seemed to worship him but also by those who vilified him, both within Venezuela and outside the country. On the streets of Caracas there was a lot of real tears, while in Miami many Venezuelan refugees rejoiced, although one person admitted, "One should not celebrate the death of anyone, but one can celebrate change."

Chavez was a dictator; he enjoyed almost unlimited power. Even towards the end, he insisted he could run the country from his Havana sickbed. He went to Cuba several times for operations and chemotherapy, and even declared himself cured. Last October, he campaigned for and won reelection for another six-year term.

He was seemingly addicted to power and acclaim, but that is hardly unusual for people who once have gained a lot of power, as Lord Acton affirmed jn his famous aphorism (although he referred to the Catholic church): "power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Chavez ruled by whim, in the style of a Latin American caudillo. Yet, unlike Fidel Castro, he used elections not force and thus gave Venezuela at least the semblance of democracy. This tradition of elections will make it easier for the country to face the future without his dominating presence.

By promising to end corruption he won election for the first time in 1998 with a sizable majority. He then called for a Constituent Assembly that wrote a new constitution that enshrined basic human rights but also accorded new, almost absolute powers to the presidency and the military.

When the armed forces refused to support him in 2002 because of huge public protests, he stepped down briefly as president, although he did not officially resign. Yet he was soon reinstated by the military. Since then, he has won every election, including the latest. Unfortunately he was too sick to be installed again in January, so he disregarded his own constitution. This was the situation when he died.

Chavez was an autocrat who had packed the courts, gained full control of the legislature and the bureaucracy and emasculated the opposition. Yet even his severest critics have to admit that he did much to help the poor people of Venezuela. He came by his concern for the poor naturally. He was born into a poor working-class family. He became a military officer, but grew dissatisfied with the political system and wanted to overthrow it.

His greatest hero was Simon Bolivar, his fellow countryman and the great revolutionary and liberator of many Latin American countries, including Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, who was to become president of many of these countries for varying periods of time. Bolivar's name is part of the official name of native land (the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela), which is part of Chavez' legacy. Bolivar's name is also associated with a quasi-religious cult that Chavez later appropriated.

Fidel Castro was another highly important hero for Chavez. The countries they represented had a symbiotic relationship: Venezuela shipped highly subsidized oil to Cuba in return for the loan of sorely-needed medical personnel. Castro became Chavez' most important counselor and friend.

Chavez had a rogue's gallery of friends, including Muammar Gaddafi of Lybia and Mahmoud Amadinejab of Iran. His chief enemy was George W. Bush, whom he nicknamed the "Devil." Chavez had a very rocky relationship with the US for decades, among other things accusing the US of involvement in the coup that ousted him temporarily.

Venezuela sits on top of one of the largest oil deposits in the world. This makes that country vitally important to the global economy. What will happen to Venezuela now that Chavez is no longer alive? And what will happen to all the chavistas who supported him in the past and who still adore him to the point of worship?

Millions of Venezuelans lined up for hours to view the simple, glass-covered coffin holding the body of Chavez before the memorial service was held. The government decided that his embalmed body will be displayed in a museum "eternally," much like the body of Lenin is still on display in Red Square in Moscow.

I have seen Lenin's body. I was alone in the mausoleum, and I am still deeply troubled by the veneration of this revolutionary almost a century after his death. This resembles the veneration of the relics of saints in Catholic churches, but in Lenin's case it was done by an officially atheistic state. Yet many Russians to this day refuse to permit Lenin to be buried beside his mother in a St. Petersburg cemetery, as was his own wish, since that would represent the burial of their beliefs. Reports from the time suggest that Lenin's death did not provoke the outpouring of grief that Chavez' passing did.

In the case of Chavez, who was estranged from the Catholic church for many years, such veneration would make him a secular saint. Is this a product of the Bolivarian cult that Chavez appropriated for his own use? Will such displays of grief form the beginnings of a new posthumous personality cult?

The Guardian newspaper wonders whether the photographer who took the photo of the two women, as well as those who have decided that Chavez should lie in state, were influenced by the rich visual heritage of the Catholic world as exemplified in numerous oil paintings such as that by Rafael not to mention countless postcards.

Or is Chavez to become more than just a venerated saint in the medieval style but now a Christ-like figure who is worshiped, as Venezuelans already seem to be doing? I hope not! That would be sacrilegious.

Amadinejab has already suggested that Chavez, like Christ, will be resurrected. Amadinejab, of course, is widely regarded as a fool, just as Chavez is. They make a good pair together.

Yet I very much doubt that Chavez, who after his illness became reconciled with the Catholic church, would appreciate the comparison with Christ. He did much to rescue many of his countrymen from poverty using the fabulous oil-wealth of his country, and he certainly did not want to die. Nevertheless, he did not regard himself as Christ, nor would he have wanted to be worshiped. Adulation is one thing, worship another.

Hugo Chavez was not a saint, nor was he a Christ-like figure. Instead, he was a man with many faults (as we all do), but he truly had a heart for the poor. He was indeed a dictator who sometimes played the fool on the world stage, yet he resolutely defended his country against all forms of imperialism, whether real or perceived. He was a socialist, but that does not make him as evil as many Americans suppose. He was a man of many paradoxes, but that is hardly surprising for someone who cut a larger-than-life figure not only in his own country but also in the rest of the world.

Now Venezuela has an opportunity to change. Venezuelans should not celebrate Chavez' death, but they can celebrate change. The whole world is watching eagerly to see what happens.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The pilgrim pope

What does one do with a retired pope? The Roman Catholic Church has not had to deal with this question for almost 600 years. Pope Gregory XII retired in 1415 in order to end the Western Schism. He did not stay in Rome, but spent the remaining two years of his life in peaceful obscurity in the town of Ancona in central Italy.

Will Pope Benedict XVI in his retirement also enjoy a life of peaceful obscurity? A few hours before his resignation went into effect, Benedict flew by helicopter to the papal summer home at Castel Gandolfo, about 25 kilometers south of Rome, where he will stay for only a few months while renovations are completed to a monastery inside the Vatican walls where he he intends to live upon his return to Rome.

When Benedict arrived at Castel Gandolfo, he thanked the crowd and told them that for the rest of his life, "I will simply be a pilgrim, who is starting the last phase of his pilgrimage on this Earth." 

Benedict at Castel Gandolfo, which overlooks Lake Albano

This pilgrim pope is expressing what is a reality for everyone else: all of us are pilgrims. Everyone of us is on a journey to a new and better life on a renewed Earth that is joined once again to heaven. I am sure this is what Benedict meant.

The scallop in Benedict's papal shield stands for pilgrimage. This apparently refers to a legend about St. Augustine, although I not sure about the details. The mussel is also found in the arms of Scots Monastery, Regensburg, where Benedict began his career as a priest.

I hope that this pilgrim pope will also act in a humble, self-effacing way that ought to characterize all pilgrims. Unfortunately, popes throughout history have not always been the humble men they should have been.

Even if a man is reticent by nature, as Benedict was, the papacy has a way of elevating him far above his brothers, since he is the successor to St. Peter, who Catholics claim was appointed by Christ to be the leader of the Church, and was thus the first pope.

St. Peter

The pope is Bishop of Rome, who from the time of the early church was widely regarded as having authority over the other churches. Even after the fall of Rome, the pope served as the source of unity in the Church. Such authority can give even the most humble man an aura of power and majesty that will change him, if only because of the way he is trreated by his fellow bishops and ordinary believers.

Once someone has tasted the elixir of power and the adoration that sometimes accompanies it, it is not easy to remain humble, even after one retires. Retirement can be very difficult: one day one is still in charge, while the next day one has lost all authority. When one has lost power, one can easily be tempted to try to influence affairs and thus retain a modicum of one's former power.

Benedict will be living within the walls of the Vatican not far from the levers of power. The monastery is only a short distance from the papal apartments, which are the official residence of the pope. Benedict lived there for eight years, and now it will be occupied by his successors.

Mater Ecclesiae monastery, Benedict's retirement home

In addition to these apartments, he has lost his papal ring; his red shoes; the mozzetta, the short, elbow-length cape that covers the pope's shoulders, although he can still wear the white papal cassock; and even his papal twitter account, @pontifex, which is available for the next pope.

Benedict has said he plans to spend his retirement "hidden from the world" in a life of prayer. He is to be commended for that, but dangers lurk even then. His personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, is to continue to work for him in his retirement. But the Archbishop will also become the personal secretary to the new pontiff. Thus Benedict will have easy access to the new pope, without them having to meet in person.

Benedict has promised to render full obedience to the new pope, but what happens when a newly elected pontiff turns to his predecessor for advice? The newly emeritated pope has appointed a large majority of the cardinals who elect his successor. Many of them are his friends, while all of them are well-known to him.

He may not desire to influence his successor in any way, but such influence may happen regardless. That danger exists, especially when two popes live in close proximity. Six hundred years Pope Gregory XII moved almost 300 kilometers from Rome in order to reduce the change of influencing his successor. Benedict's problem is more acute.

Pope Gregory XII, the last pope to retire before Benedict XVI

Because of his frail health, Benedict could not become a pilgrim pope the way John Paul II was, who traveled to 129 countries, more than any other pope before him or since. Pope Paul VI was called the first pilgrim pope, since he was the first pontiff to fly in an airplane. 

The world needs more pilgrim popes in every sense of the phrase. Popes who are not only willing to travel all over the globe but realize that they are also on a much longer journey to a much better place. Above all, they must remain humble as they engage in their pilgrimage.

Pilgrim popes must be humble, since they know who is the Lord of the Church. Christ is the one whom they are serving. Such divine service should never be allowed to go to anyone's head, not even a pope who is responsible for more than one billion Catholics.

There is a story, which may be apocryphal, that Pope John-Paul II was asked one day, "How can you sleep at night with your enormous global responsibilities?" "Easy," said the pope, "I say to God., 'It is your Church, you take care of it!'"

That is the proper attitude for a pope. Humility is not valued greatly by the secular world, but in the world of faith it is one of the chief virtues. May there be many more pilgrim popes!