Friday, March 08, 2013

The Next Pope: Does It Matter?

So when will the conclave begin? When will the cardinals gathered in Vatican City start selecting the next Pope? Here's another question: Does it matter?

At one level the answer is, "Of course it matters." Benedict XVI was a staunchly-conservative, academician Pope, which is part of why he was selected in the first place. Those sorts of commitments and characteristics mattered because they set the tone and established priorities in the Roman Catholic Church.

Anyone convinced that who's Pope doesn't really matter should consider John XXIII, the jovial, docile leader of the Church . . . who wound up calling the Second Vatican Council. (Don't be fooled by the sort-of-goofy guy who likes to repeat the joke of the day. He's much more serious than you might think).

But I digress. The point is, official leadership matters. Except when it doesn't.

It might be natural to think that, in a church, what officially matters is the same thing as what really matters. But it isn't. This is one of the themes of a book first published in 1985 by Robert Anthony Orsi, a book that went on to establish itself as one of the modern classics in the field known as "Lived Religion." What's that? You might say that Lived Religion is the study of what officially doesn't matter, but that really matters a great deal.

In The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950, Orsi insists that there are always those two senses of "religion." He also suggests that Lived Religion is the 90 percent of the iceberg that you don't see. When it comes to American Catholicism, Orsi noticed that those who articulated the meanings of the faith (cardinals, bishops, priests) rarely appreciated or even mentioned the incredibly popular devotions of Roman Catholics: the Madonna of Lourdes, Padre Pio, the Shroud of Turin, and many others including his subject, the Madonna of 115th Street in old Italian Harlem.

I've got my own version of the tale that Orsi tells. For about five years, I was the preacher at the Church of Christ in small southern town. I had been preceded by a long line of mostly-traditional, sometimes-militant preachers. Among almost everyone in the congregation, say, 45 years old and under strongly disliked that style.

Once I got to know those people, I conducted a straw poll. Here's what I said to them: "I know, this turns something complex into an either-or proposition. But just go with it. If you had to choose, would you say that you are a member of this congregation because of the preaching, or in spite of the preaching?"

You guessed it. 100% of the response was "in spite of." Naturally, that led me to ask another question: "So why have you stayed with the church of your youth? Or, if you came here as an adult, why did you do that?"

Most of the answers had a lot to do with extended-family connections. To many people, there was a tremendous overlap of church life and family life. Also, when a Baptist or Methodist married a member of the Church of Christ, if marital peace was going to be kept on the religious front, then the non-member of the Christ of Christ had to come over to "the more perfect way." The proverb about the squeaky wheel getting the grease comes to mind. Responses also included the idea that people who had spent their lives in the Church of Christ wouldn't fit anywhere else. On the positive side, these people said that they liked the highest ideals of the congregation, even though they acknowledged that we didn't always live up to them.

My little experiment was my first memorable exposure to the fact that why people are part of a group, and what leaders offer as reasons for group membership can be two different things. It reminds me of one of Donald McGavran's many wise sayings: the chief barriers to conversion are not theological. They are sociological.

So the cardinals can gather and decide and send white smoke through the chimney. Their choice will be  important. And churches can select their next preachers. And those preachers can preach and teach and write and blog. All of those are important too. But there are a lot of other things that Christian people feel and do that are just as significant, in many cases more so. In a world attracted to fanfare and hype, it's helpful, I think, to understand what is significant to most people most of the time. It's not the Pope or me.

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