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Exiting the stage with grace and dignity - Bob Paslay

It is hard for those of us without much power to understand how addictive power can be. The spotlight is on you, people huddle waiting for your every pronouncement. The masses show their love and adulation at every turn.

Can you remember any of these powerful leaders who voluntarily gave up their power to retreat into the corridors while their successor accented?

Those of us who had a grandparent who lingered and slipped away slowly as we watched can have some understanding of how the pope is going to agonizingly and slowly slip away. We can understand fully the pain the faithful are going to feel as they see the feeble 84-year-old pontiff try to function. Cardinals must pray mightily that the pope will not tumble forward only steps away from them.

Ronald Reagan's wife, Nancy, was determined that the world would remember the vibrant man rather than a doddering shadow of his former self and she succeeded.

There is clear evidence that the assassin's bullet weakened and diminished Reagan's ability to function far more than the people knew. The same is true of President Woodrow Wilson and the first lady actually ran the White House for several years. FDR was weak and feeble at the start of his fourth term and died only months into it. At no time was there a thought of the leader stepping down.

The same is true of long-time senator Strom Thurmond, who by some accounts, had days in which he didn't know what day it was and swooned on the Senate floor. But he was determined that nothing could make him quit. He was going to die with all the power intact and have a powerful man's funeral.

Why is it that the power surges through their body so much that they can't even think of giving up this power?

There is a procedure in which the pope could gracefully step down and live out the remaining time on earth in his beloved Poland. As a young priest he would go on long treks through the mountains there and later proved how physically and mentally strong he was when he survived an assassin's attempt.

To see how frail he is makes it even more painful knowing how vibrant he was. Nothing the pontiff can do now will add to his legacy. It is chiseled.

I should say that I am Presbyterian and so may not understand all the elements that go into this decision. But I do know that there is a process for John Paul II to step down and make way for a new pope. But I fear we are to watch him slip away agonizingly slow as those of us saw grandparents become ghosts of their former selves before finally dying.

The pope is a world leader and even we Protestants watch him as I do his Christmas message each year. I was in New York City one year and stood with the throngs outside St. Patrick's Cathedral to watch the pope emerge and walk to the rectory behind it. I am one of those religious people who believes that each must read the Bible and come to understand your place in life and the place of the creator and how it all fits together. So I don't need anyone, Protestant, Catholic or Agnostic, interpreting it for me. I like the pope on some visceral level but am not persuaded by his pronouncements. My fear is that even many American Catholics, who believe they should determine the size of their families and other issues in their lives, live a dual life of paying respect to the pope but not hanging on his every pronouncement.

In politics I am more fascinated by the process of electing than I am about the process of governing. I must admit the process of selecting a new pope, when that time comes, is very fascinating. The machinations that go into it, cloaked so much in tradition and secrecy, only make the process more fascinating. Even the way in which his death is announced and his successor's selection is told adds to this tradition. Will we return to the long tradition of having an Italian pope? Will we reach to Africa or one of the Hispanic countries? Will a caretaker pope advanced in age be installed to buy more time for a long-term pope? Will the next pope hold firm to the very conservative church views of John Paul II or will this be the time to venture forward with priests marrying, women priests and some sensible opinion on birth control? I guess the time is fast approaching when many of these questions will be answered. Even we Protestants, who don't have a vested interest in what happens, pray that John Paul II will exit the stage with dignity and grace, something he has shown in his tenure as pope.

Bob Paslay is assistant managing editor for the News Daily and Daily Herald. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 Ext. 257 or at bpaslay@news-daily.com .