Waiting on the Conclave: is laughter the best medicine?

By Simon Barrow
March 13, 2013

As black smoke continued to rise above the Sistine Chapel earlier today, and as speculation bubbled in inverse proportion to the amount of information coming out of the Vatican about the papal conclave (that is, given the secrecy surrounding it, virtually none), journalists were faced with the task of finding something to do to 'keep the story alive'.

That something inevitably involved interviewing anyone vaguely connected with the future of the Catholic Church. Equally unsurprisingly, the tone of these interviews tended to gravitate away from the earnest and towards the more jocular.

The retired English Cardinal, Cormac Murphy O'Connor, who at 80 years is too old to be in the Conclave, enjoyed a bit of light-hearted banter with doyen Channel 4 News reporter Jon Snow (himself the religiously lapsed son of a former Anglican bishop) in St Peter's Square. "Maybe some are a bit more holy than others," he wryly observed of the conclavistas when asked to comment on one of his two criteria for the next pontiff: a person of spiritual depth and also of managerial ability.

The humour is no bad thing. The protocol and ceremony surrounding a papal election can seem bizarrely remote and self-important to an onlooking world. As the late reforming Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini forthrightly observed in his last interview with the Italian media (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17016), “Our culture has aged... the church bureaucracy rises up; our rituals and our cassocks are pompous.”

Laughter is a great leveller in these circumstances. It puts pomp in its place, restores a sense of perspective, and reminds everyone involved that our equality before the divine consists not least in our fallibility and underlying nakedness, (which is no respecter of hierarchy), and perhaps in the fact that, in a highly contingent world, "God laughs at our plans".

So as the Rev Jane Charman (@janeeecharman), Director of Learning for Discipleship and Ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Salisbury, wisely observed yesterday: "The outbreak of gentle humour around the papal election is probably the best publicity the Roman Catholic Church has had in a while."

Certainly better than the ever-darkening storms around abuse which have continued to gather throughout the conclave - including the extraordinary (and so far under-reported) news that many thousands of children may have been molested in Catholic schools in the Netherlands since 1945.

These developments remind us that the misuse of power, within the Curia, at all levels of Church life and even under the guard of the confessional is something that the new incumbent at St Peter's will have to address as a matter of absolute priority - and that this will require the kind of humility which has so often been lacking in the past.

Meanwhile, the lighter side of the conclave was reflected in many ways. Hot on the heels of his tour of the North Korean capital Pyongyang, where he professed admiration to top anti-US antagonist Kim Jong Un, flamboyant American basketball player Dennis Rodman told CBS News in Vatican City that he was confident that we would see "the first Black pope". Many Vatican-watchers doubt it, but maybe Dennis will confound the experts yet.

Race also emerged as a theme when some started complaining that the use of black smoke to denote non-decision might be discriminatory and pejorative. While the negritude movement has rightly raised awareness of the serious prejudices that lie buried in cultural attributions, others pointed out that it may be a little different in this case. As a liturgical colour, black is actually associated with Good Friday (one of the three holiest days in the Christian calendar), and the current shades of smoke seem to have been determined by chemical reactions dating back initially to the thirteenth century.

None of this stopped Tottenham MP David Lammy, a practising Christian of the non-Catholic variety, from getting into something of a pickle. When the BBC asked "black or white smoke?" over the first conclave vote, Mr Lammy responded furiously: "This tweet from the BBC is crass and unnecessary. Do we really need silly innuendo about the race of the next Pope?"

Some speculated that this was dry wit. Not quite, it emerged. When the nature of the Holy Smoke tradition was pointed out, the MP replied: "It's the juxtaposition of Pope and black and white. But maybe I'm just weary of the endless discussion of race." Then, finally, some hours later, he conceded in an understandably face-saving way: "Note to self: do not tweet from the Chamber with only one eye on what you're reading. Sorry folks, my mistake." Nothing twittish has been heard since...

The smiles continued elsewhere, however. Yesterday, a few reporters were also commenting that for many aging cardinals this will have been the first 'sleepover' they have experienced. Others were seeking to portray the whole business as something of a 'talent show' akin to the rise of that genre in the digital age. A sing-off was not likely, however, one journalist admitted, even if the previous pontiff had indeed released a best-selling album.

On Twitter #conclavegameshows was a popular hashtag prompt to adapt TV show names to Church predilections, with suggestions including 'Whose Compline is it Anyway?' providing entertainment while the lack of news continued.

So the wait for the decisive smoke signal went on. "Of course, this wouldn't be taking so long if they'd introduced Single Transferrable Pope," tweeted Abigail Brady (@abigailb) earlier today.

The work the new pope takes on will be no laughing matter. But alongside holiness, a pastoral touch, openness to dialogue (hopefully) and managerial acumen, a sense of humour would most definitely come in very handy indeed.

* Introducing the new Pope, Francis I: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18165

* 'What the cardinals believe'. Find out, and contribute, here: http://www.cardinalrating.com/

* Papal #conclave: news, comment, background and analysis from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/PapalConclave

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. A member of the Scottish Episcopal Church with strong Anabaptist/Mennonite leanings, he has worked at a Catholic university college in the past, as well as within the ecumenical movement. He has a long-standing interest in, and appreciation for, Catholic spirituality and liturgy, alongside the peace and justice traditions of the Catholic Church.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.