Preoccupation with pope’s personality can be unhealthy, historian says

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Centuries ago — prior to mass media — popes and the conclaves to elect them did not have the worldwide attention they do now, a historian told reporters.

Pope John XXIII is pictured in this undated photo. Oct. 11, 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the first session of the Second Vatican Council, which was called by Pope John XXIII. (CNS photo/courtesy of Archbishop Loris Capovilla)
Pope John XXIII is pictured in this undated photo. Oct. 11, 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the first session of the Second Vatican Council, which was called by Pope John XXIII. (CNS photo/courtesy of Archbishop Loris Capovilla)

Jesuit Father Norman Tanner, dean of church history at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, told reporters March 11 that the papal candidates from all over the world reveal the globalization of the church while the “preoccupation with the personality of popes” can often be unhealthy in choosing a new pontiff.

There is “wisdom” he said, in just focusing on the office itself.

But the priest historian also acknowledged that popes have been world figures since the 1846-1878 pontificate of Pope Pius IX. He also noted that personalities have played a part in the role, particularly with Popes John XXIII and John Paul II.

Retired Pope Benedict XVI “tried to de-emphasize” the pope’s personality, he added.

Father Tanner said popes would be wrong to exclude reaching out to people and staying within their offices but they also “need to be careful that (their personality) doesn’t dominate.”

“Popes come with mixed gifts and deficiencies,” he said, adding that they have to then do their best with these skills in complex situations and in a very responsible role.

When a reporter asked if a strong personality, such as Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York or Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila, Philippines, would be key for the church in its evangelization efforts, the historian noted that the new pope certainly should have a public presence but that is “just one of many characteristics.”

The main role of the pope, he said, has nothing to do with personality.

He needs to “preserve the barque of Peter,” he said, keeping the church “afloat and in the right direction.”

By Carol Zimmermann Catholic News Service