Special Report on the papacy: The impossible job — God’s CEO on Earth

March 8, 2013

(Pope Benedict XVI leaves at the end of the Vespers mass to celebrate the feast of Saint Peters and Paul in the Saint Paul Outside the Walls basilica in Rome June 28, 2010. REUTERS/Tony Gentile)

Joseph Ratzinger never hid the fact he thought the Roman Catholic papacy was too big for one man.

For several days after being elected in 2005, Pope Benedict – as he chose to be called – spoke as if in shock. At his first public Mass, he asked: “I must assume this enormous task, which truly exceeds all human capacity. How can I do this?”

At a meeting with fellow Germans the following day, Benedict surprised his well-wishers by likening the experience of being elected in the Sistine Chapel to getting dizzy as he watched a guillotine blade fall upon him.

Now he has broken six centuries of tradition and resigned, the Catholic Church is asking whether in an era of democracy, 24/7 television and Twitter, the papacy modeled on Renaissance-era monarchy is suffering the same fate. There have been sexual abuse scandals, disputes with Muslims and Jews, suspected money-laundering at the Vatican Bank and communications gaffes. Stacks of private files stolen by Benedict’s own butler have documented corruption and in-fighting among senior officials.

Benedict hands on a 2,000-year-old institution whose reputation is tarnished, whose teaching is challenged by an increasingly secular world and whose priests struggle to minister to its growing population. The man who leads the world’s largest church must be a spiritual guide for millions, an inspiration for the oppressed and the manager of a squabbling, dysfunctional Vatican bureaucracy.

“No sane man seeks the burden of the papacy,” says George Weigel, a prominent Catholic theologian in Washington D.C. “It is by definition impossible, because it asks a man to take up a burden of leadership that no human being can possibly attract by his own powers.”

The challenge for the cardinals due to enter the conclave next week is to seize the chance to face up to the problems and identify reforms that help the next pope address them. The job of leading the estimated 1.2 billion Catholics around the world must be done by one man.

Thomas Reese, a Jesuit scholar and author of “Inside the Vatican”, puts it simply: “What they are looking for is Jesus Christ with an MBA.”

Here’s my video report on the papal election:

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