Fresh from her back-room authorship and successful passing of a piece of legislation that could fundamentally change the face of her nation, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi headed to Rome with a handful of other Democrat legislators. On the agenda: a bit of skiing, a bit of award schmoozing, and on Wednesday, some face time with Pope Benedict XVI.
That last bit is producing howls in some Catholic quarters. A papal audience does not go unnoticed, and some Catholics — mindful of Pelosi’s seemingly willful misunderstanding of church teachings on abortion, grave sin, and the reception of communion — want the pope to publicly chastise his recalcitrant daughter or, even better, excommunicate her until she renounces her positions. The inevitable pictures of pope and speaker together are also causing headaches; Pelosi and the press, goes the worry, will point to them as evidencing a triumph of the liberal zeitgeist over the Eternal church.
In truth, here is what will happen: The pope, as head of state, will meet with the speaker of the house of the United States — third in line to the Oval Office. There will be small talk, small gifts exchanged, and flashing light bulbs. As the last great man of the 20th century meets the most powerful woman of the 21st century, there will be no excommunications, no public scolding, and their shared religion will take a backseat to their official duties. Very likely Mrs. Pelosi will come bearing a private message from the new American president saying something to the effect that “change” had come to America and that Benedict’s chance of a welcome on the White House lawn had materially diminished, for now.
The pope will not sprinkle Pelosi with holy water and set her head to spinning, she will not cackle at him and spew fire from her eyes; the pictures will go forward, people will be free to make what they want of them, and that is all any of us will see from a distance.
But Catholics, who understand that there are “things seen and unseen” can and should hope for more; those who profess belief in the Holy Spirit also know that the third person of the Triune God has a habit of using the most surprising people and events to bring about change. Within the confines of a protocol-laden meeting there will be little chance for Mrs. Pelosi and the pope to engage in a discussion of any depth, but the Holy Spirit is capable of piercing through rigid structures and strictures to communicate and to move, and to turn, in ways none of us can imagine.
For the faithful, all this fretting is unseemly. For those who believe that Mrs. Pelosi is a captive of the age, and closed to the teachings of her own church, there is only prayer; they should pray, positively and generously, to assist in the opening of what is closed, and the freeing of what is captive. For those who believe that Benedict’s job is to teach “the faith throughout the ages,” rather than conform to trends and appetites, there is only prayer that the Holy Spirit might pack a spiritual punch with his every word and gesture.
Practicing prayer on behalf of those with whom you disagree is empowering, and it is precisely what Jesus Christ enjoined his followers to do. Not the “oh, Lord, destroy her, she maketh a blight” sort of prayer, but the “oh, Lord, she professes you, let her be opened to your Spirit,” sort, the “Lord, may your servant Benedict be used for your purpose,” kind of prayer. This meeting between The Pope and The Pelosi almost begs for it.
It is no easy thing to be pope. The world sees an all-powerful King; the pope understands he is first and foremost a pastor. He reinstates a disobedient bishop only to have said bishop revealed as a Holocaust-denying loon. The world cries, “excommunicate him again!” But looniness is not sufficient cause for excommunication. Now he meets a daughter of the church who is beholden to her age. “Excommunicate her, too” some shout, but the pope, perhaps, wishes to try to another way, and few understand or are satisfied with any of it.
Caricatured for years as “God’s Rottweiler” and “the enforcer” before elevation to the papacy revealed his undeniable and natural gentleness, the pope has known a life of war, deprivation, conscription, imprisonment, and humble service to faith; it shows on his face.
Ably demonstrating a desire to enforce lockstep conformity within her party in Congress, Mrs. Pelosi has known nothing but freedom, privilege and power throughout the whole of her life; that shows on her face.
What the pope and the speaker will see within each other’s faces, what the Holy Spirit will pass between them, is interesting to speculate about, but the impact of this meeting may not be felt until it has been forgotten. Thus, let people of faith pray for them both.