The papacy is one of the oldest institutions in the world, being nearly 2,000 years old. (The first person to assume the title, pope, was Bishop Siricius who held the holy office between 384 and 399 but the office, as the head of the Western church, existed before that date.) It also wields enormous power in spite of the growing atmosphere of agnosticism in the Christian part of the globe. The pope’s flock is huge: it has two billion members. This means that those who see the pope as the head of their church and as the direct representative of god form 50 per cent of all Christians and about 17 per cent of the world’s total population. But even for non-Catholics and perhaps for non-Christians as well, the figure of the pope has a symbolic importance. It is because of these reasons that the election of a new pope — the process begins on Monday — has an ecumenical significance. This is especially true because the forthcoming election is the product of a somewhat unprecedented sequence of events. No one quite expected Pope Benedict XVI to resign: such an event has not been heard of since the early 15th century. This has created a tumult within the Vatican and made necessary an untimely conclave of cardinals to elect a new pope.
It is ironic that as ancient an institution as the papacy has an age criterion for the cardinals eligible to elect a new pope. Cardinals over 80 are not allowed to vote. Such a bar does not exist in the world of politics or in any other worldly activity. This is a strange reversal of conventional notions. Spirituality is considered to be ageless and timeless. It is in worldly matters that issues of age and biology become critical factors. It is entirely possible that a cardinal over the age of four score is more devout and pious than his younger colleagues and, therefore, better placed to elect a new pope or even to become the pope himself. By imposing this bar, the Roman church has yielded to the world of matter over the world of spirit. The bar is not a concession to youth but an admission that after crossing 80 a cardinal may not physically be in a position to carry out the demands of the most important ministry of the Roman Catholic Church. Or even be in a fit condition to elect a new pope. Spirituality has nothing to do with the age limit.
The point is strengthened by the resignation of Benedict XVI, who stepped down because of failing health. The man who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger earned the epithet, “God’s rottweiler”, became a frail pope. But before this transformation could take place, as the pope he had created a series of controversies by his harsh and irresponsible comments on non-Christians and even Protestants. He also brushed aside some of the critical issues confronting the Roman Catholic Church — child abuse by priests, abortion, gay marriages, and so on. The man whose election as pope will be announced by a sliver of white smoke has a difficult legacy to uphold.