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Sunday, April 03, 2005

Pontifex Maximus

Pope John Paul ll died last evening. By all accounts he did not go raging into that dark night, but accepted death with serenity, calmness and diginity. The suffering the man endured was great. Not only the physical suffering of a once very active man but also the mental suffering of a man whose words were often twisted to suit others' purposes. He bore a very large cross. He has gone to meet Jesus and to a new life, a better life. In this day and age, it can be hard to think of things beyond this earthly existence. And yet, it is what Christainity is all about -- faith and the gift of eternal life.

There have been something in the order of 265 successors of St Peter and I would hate to think how many Pontifex Maximus the waters of the Tiber has seen.

The title Pontifex Maximus (or high priest) that the Pope bears is Roman in origin. In Roman Republic times, it referred to the high priest of Jupiter. Julius Ceasar famously held the office. I believe in the Roman Empire it was held by the Emperor.

I am not sure how or when the head of the Christain church took on the title. I suspect it was probably by in the 5th or 6th century. There is a theory that the Western Roman Empire never truly fell but became what is today called the Roman Catholic church. One can make the case (as indeed my Roman history professor, Jackson Bryce did at university) that the final date for the collapse of the Roman Empire was 1978 when Pope John Paul l refused to be crowned with the double crown of the Roman Empire.

If anyone is wondering how the election of the new pope will happen, Dan Brown's Angels and Demons takes the election of a new pope as one of its major strands. It is a page turner but the basics about the Sistine Chapel, and the smoke is there. This book is much more pro Catholic church than the Da Vinci Code.

Pope John Paul ll dominated Roman Catholic life for over a quarter of a century. He helped bring about the collaspe of Communism in Eastern Europe and has been a strident voice for human rights and the dignity of the individual. He believed in the sanctity of marriage and that life is sacred (both these ideals if you will primarily come from the teaching of Jesus -- there are very different from the ethical beliefs of first century AD Rome) He reasserted the authority of Rome over the RC community, but he did not turn the clock back. More than any other pope he reached out to other faiths. Instead of hiding in the vatican, he travelled and met the faithful. He managed to annoy both conservative and liberal alike -- probably meaning he got it about right. He was true to the spirit of the Vatican ll.

It is possible that he will become in due course a saint and may even be called the Great. Much in the manner of St Nicholas l the Great (not the one who inspired Santa Claus but another St Nicholas) or St Gregory the Great.

1 comment:

Anna Lucia said...

An excellent obituary/roundup, Michelle.

Although I'm not a catholic, Pope John Paul II has been there as long as I can remember. It's going to be strange to see someone else in charge, there.

And my thoughts and prayers are with the Catholic community.