"Vocation is our willing participation in God's dreams for us... Pope, pew warmer or neither, God has dreams for each one of us. We glimpse those dreams in the pattern of call and response."
"Who would ever want to be king?"A couple of years ago, Cold Play had a hit song called “Viva la Vida”. It was a song my family played repeatedly and loudly one Christmas, as we danced around the kitchen doing dishes. The lyrics are difficult to decode, and I’m not quite sure what the song actually means.
One verse in particular makes me think about the challenges of holding a position of immense responsibility and authority. The lyrics convey the sense of isolation, the difficulty of making decisions, and the criticism of being top dog: “Revolutionaries wait/For my head on a silver plate/Just a puppet on a lonely string/ Ah, who would ever want to be king?”
These lyrics have been clattering about in my head, over the last week as I followed the media coverage on the election of a new pope. With the myriad of challenges facing the institutional Roman Catholic Church and with increasing public pressure on the cardinals for reform, I found myself wondering, “Who would ever want to be pope?”
The newly elected pope, Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, inherits a Church in crisis. He will have to respond quickly to the social realities of the times that contradict Church teaching. He must reach out compassionately to the growing number of disaffected Catholics in many countries of the developed world. He will need to reform the dysfunction within the institution.
Hans Kung, one of the most highly regarded theologians of our age, noted in a New York Times article, that the Church could “fall into a new ice age and run the danger of shrinking into an increasingly irrelevant sect” if the new pope fails to usher in a “Vatican Spring”.
In this climate, why would anyone want to be pope? Why would anyone want a position that Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet (who was considered a top papal contender) once quipped would be a “nightmare”? Why would anyone accept a ministry that leaves him isolated, despite the many advisers around him? Why would someone be open to public criticism regardless of the leadership style he takes, decisions he makes, or reforms he institutes?
Personal ambition alone cannot supply the answer
While I am not naïve enough to totally rule out a cardinal’s personal ambition in the desire to become pope, ambition by itself cannot supply the answer. The fullness of the answer lies within the concept of vocation.
Vocation is not limited to those people who are ordained or consecrated to religious life. I like to think of vocation more broadly; it is our willing participation in God’s dreams for us. Vocation has a way of tugging at our heartstrings, stubbornly refusing to go away until we make some sort of response. It is a mysterious inner movement that draws us out of uncertainty and reluctance into service for others.
Like the prophets of old, we do not always choose our vocation. Sometimes, it chooses us. Sometimes, we feel compelled, though we are hard pressed to explain why, to assume a task or a position we do not seek. Once we respond, it may surprise us with delight, or burden us with dismay. I have experienced it both ways.
I recall my reaction when asked to teach a catechism class. I hung up the phone, flopped on the bed with my arms outstretched, and humorously whined, “No! Why me? I don’t want to do this!” At that moment, I had said “yes”, and I was glad that I did.
There have been other times when my “yes” became a heavy burden. While I did not enjoy those moments, I learned much from those experiences, and in retrospect, I am glad for them, too.
Call and response: the rhythm of faith, the stuff of life
Life is a series of calls and responses. Some calls are easier to handle than others. Some will leave us uplifted, enthusiastically embracing the task and living life with élan, while others will leave us discouraged, battle scarred and weary. During those moments, we may wonder, “Ah, who would ever want to be me?”
But here’s the thing. Pope, pew warmer, or neither, God has dreams for each one of us. We glimpse those dreams in the pattern of call and response. This is the rhythm of faith, and the stuff of human life. Responding to God’s call, be it grand or humble, helps us to decode the lyrics of our own song, until we find their meaning in our ultimate vocation: oneness with God.