I think a lot of us expect our Pope to be, as Paul strives, “all things to
all people.” Because he is the one vicar of Christ, I think we expect him
to be the one hero— to save the world all by himself. I think we expect
our Pope to be Superman.
But instead of treating our Popes like Superman, I think we would be better off treating them like the many varied heroes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 3-volume, Lord of the Rings (published 1954-55). In Tolkien’s trilogy, it is absolutely impossible for one character to save the world. Each character embodies specific heroic qualities. These qualities are all different but they all matter and no one hero has all of the qualities.
There are the elves. The elves are the guardians of Beauty and Truth. In
the Middle-Earth outpost of Rivendell they embody elegance, nobility, honor, wisdom. Men and dwarves may accuse them of being snobbish, out of touch with the world, impractical. But the elves are absolutely necessary for the salvation of Middle Earth. The very qualities they get criticized for are integral to the salvific plan. If they were as down to earth and impulsive as the hobbits, there would be no restraint and strategy behind the great battles. Moreover there would be no safe, hidden haven to retreat to when necessary. Without the elves, the fight for good would become a chaotic, impulsive mess doomed to imminent failure.
Our Pope Benedict was an elf. He was a guardian of Beauty and Truth. Many people thought him too reserved and too lofty. “Does it really make a difference whether we say ‘and also with you’ or ‘and with your spirit?’ Why doesn’t he just go out and feed the poor?” But without Benedicts, the beauty of the liturgical walls that frame our worship are endangered as in Middle Earth, “Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth.” We need a pope who defends inspirational music and preserves
Sacramental reverence that draw us closer to God. The books, encyclicals, philosophical musings, paintings, symphonies — they all matter. It matters that someone is reminding us why we believe what we believe. It matters that our pillars be strong. Our Pope Benedict worked to ensure that they were.
But we also need Francis. Our Francis is a hobbit. Where the elves are the guardians of Beauty and Truth, the hobbits are the embodiment of Goodness. The hobbits are simple, pure, and childlike. They are trusting to the point of foolishness. But it is that very naivety that is integral to their role in the salvation of Middle Earth. Most creatures would never have the courage to enter the fiery pit of Mordor. The elves know too much about it.
The hobbits have just the right amount of naivety to embark on the
adventures and undertakings least appealing to the rest of the world. The hobbits are willing to take to the streets with curiosity singing, “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” They are willing to get their big furry feet dirty. They don’t think too much of themselves and often speak thoughtlessly. Without the hobbits, the fight for good would remain merely words and talk — a plan, but no action. The hobbits provide the necessary levity, the enthusiasm, the childlike spark of hope and faith.
Sometimes you wonder if Pope Francis really understands what he is getting himself into. Well, I would bet there’s a good chance he often doesn’t — and perhaps we don’t want him to. Perhaps it is his impulsivity, his hobbitness, which allows him to reach out into Mordor, into the deepest and darkest of places — to the people who aren’t initially interested in the Beauty or the Truth.
Then we have Gandalf. Gandalf bridges the gap between elf and hobbit. Gandalf respects all forms of Transcendence. Pope John Paul II was our
Gandalf, reaching across cultural boundaries. He was charismatic, extroverted, and silly, but also a lover of liturgy and art and wisdom. He seemed equally a Pope of the “people” and a Pope of the Church. No wonder he is already canonized.
But that doesn’t mean the other two aren’t saints too. Gandalf wasn’t necessarily any better than the elves or the hobbits. Middle Earth needed Gandalf along with the elves and the hobbits. As wonderful as Pope John Paul II was, there are things he couldn’t see, couldn’t say, couldn’t do, that Pope Benedict and Pope Francis can. Since both Benedict and Francis a bit more “extreme,” they have the opportunity to hone in on very specific causes that matter, even if those causes don’t immediately matter personally to some of us.
We might not feel like one particular Pope focuses on the “right
things,” but as long as he is focusing on a good thing, isn’t that what
matters? Popes will never be perfect, and we may often wish they had not done certain things. Here we can heed Gandalf’s comforting words to Frodo Baggins, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
So let us be careful when we begin to criticize a pope’s entire persona, because if they are doing some good, that good has some important role to play. They may not be a one man hero. They may not be Superman — but they’re not supposed to be. Jesus already covered that for them.