Pope or pew warmer: each has a vocation

"... with increasing public pressure for reform, I found myself wondering, 'Who would ever want to be pope?'"

A couple of years ago, Cold Play had a hit song called “Viva la Vida”.  My family played it constantly one Christmas, as we danced around the kitchen doing dishes. The lyrics are hard to decode, and I’m not sure what the song really means.

One verse in particular makes me think of the challenges of holding a position of immense responsibility and authority: “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 many challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church, and with increasing public pressure for reform, I found myself wondering, “Who would ever want to be pope?”

The new pope, Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, inherits a Church in crisis, and will have to respond quickly to the social realities of our time and to the dysfunction within the institution. Hans Kung, a highly regarded theologian, warns that if the new pope fails to usher in a “Catholic Spring”, the Church could “fall into a new ice age and run the danger of shrinking into an increasingly irrelevant sect.”

In this climate, why would anyone want a position that often 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?  There is more involved here than personal ambition. 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 as 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’s a mysterious inner movement that draws us out of our uncertainty and reluctance into service for others.

Like the prophets of old, we do not always choose our vocation. Sometimes, it chooses us. Once we respond, it may surprise us with delight, or burden us with dismay.  I’ve experienced it both ways.

Life is a series of calls and responses. Some calls are easier than others.  Some leave us uplifted, enthusiastically embracing the task and living life with élan, while others 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.

Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact her at mcewan.lou@gmail.com.