Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Yesterday afternoon, as I watched and waited for a newly-elected pope to make his first public appearance, the following phrase became fixed in my mind: sic transit gloria mundi - "thus passes the glory of the world." For many centuries, this phrase was repeated at every papal coronation. As the new pope was carried through St. Peter's Basilica in the sedia gestatoria, the procession would pause three times; each time, the papal master of ceremonies would kneel before the Supreme Pontiff with a taper of burning flax in his hand and proclaim, Pater Sancte, sic transit gloria mundi! - "Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world!" This phrase was traditionally taken as a reminder that all earthly honors are fleeting - a salutary admonition to any new pontiff in the centuries when secular and ecclesiastical authority were deeply intertwined. The words may have a different ring today, yet they are no less relevant - and no less terrifying - than they were in ages past.

Sic transit gloria mundi. These words could serve as a warning to all of us, for in different ways we all cling to earthly glory, even if we may not be accustomed to thinking in those terms. We all tend to claim some part of creation for ourselves, not merely in terms of physical space - my house, my room, my books, and so on - but also, and perhaps more profoundly, in terms of psychological space; we maintain this space by attending to our personal relationships, by guarding our reputation, and, often, by jealously maintaining our established routines. To put it another way, I think that for many of us "the glory of the world" consists in the sense of personal autonomy that we seek to protect as much as possible.

As I waited yesterday for the new pope to appear on the loggia, I wondered how the latest Successor of St. Peter would take the loss of personal freedom that comes with his office. A couple of days ago, the man who is now Pope Francis could have walked the streets of Rome alone and in complete anonymity; back in his native Argentina, he was accustomed to preparing his own meals and getting around by public transportation. As pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio will never be able to do any of these things again. For a man who appears to be very stubbornly independent, the loss of autonomy that comes with the papal office will surely be a very painful cross to bear.

It has been on my mind in the last twenty-four hours that one of the great burdens of the papacy is the total and irrecoverable self-offering that the office demands. The formula for first vows in the Society of Jesus likens the Jesuit's commitment of self to a wholly-burnt offering - a 'holocaust' in the traditional sense of the word. Having been called to the Chair of St. Peter, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has now been called upon to sacrifice himself in a more complete way than he ever could have imagined when he entered the Society of Jesus fifty-five years ago.

The photograph that illustrates this post shows Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio walking through St. Peter's Square in the days before the conclave that would elect him as pope. Though he surely could not have known it at the time, this image captures Cardinal Bergoglio on one of his last mornings as a free man - in a sense, one of his last mornings as himself. This image makes me tremble, for it makes me realize in a deeper way the gravity of the choice that I made when I professed vows in the Society of Jesus. This photograph offers me a new and fresh reminder that even those who have sought to give everything to God may be called upon to give even more than they ever expected. Sic transit gloria mundi.


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