Election Day

By now you have heard the results of the recent voting: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is the new pope. He was chosen by an enclave of cardinals (the religious leaders, not the birds), who managed to elect him decisively in only two days. The annoying part was how Ryan Seacrest stalled for an entire hour before finally announcing it.

Cardinal Ratzinger has chosen as his papal name Benedict XVI. We all remember Benedict XV, of course, the man for whom a popular egg dish was named: “Eggs XV.”

But I kid the pope and his amusing name! In America, “Benedict” makes people think of Benedict Arnold, the infamous Revolutionary War traitor. Outside of the U.S., the name doesn’t have any connotation other than its literal Latin meaning, which is “infamous traitor.”

But I continue to kid the pope! He is the first German pope since either 1523 or 1057, depending on whether you consider Adrian VI (1459-1523), who was technically both Dutch and German but who lived in what is now The Netherlands, to have been German. I have arbitrarily decided that he was not German, and thus Benedict XVI is the first German pope since 1057. Though some view the Germans as a stern, humorless people who make terrible food, let us not forget that they also started World War II.

But let us also not forget that Cardinal Ratzinger has proved himself to be an able and knowledgeable leader in the Catholic church. Those of us who aren’t Catholic don’t really care all that much who the pope is, but it’s good to know the church is being led by an intelligent, faithful man who stands up for what he believes, even if you think some of what he believes is silly. (Some of what all of us believe is silly, if you get right down to it.)

TIP: Do not confuse Joseph Ratzinger, who is the new pope, with John Ratzenberger, who played Cliff on “Cheers.”

John Ratzenberger

Not the new pope
Joseph Ratzinger

New pope

The process has been fascinating. With the rest of the world, I watched as Pope John Paul II died slowly over the course of several days, reported in great detail by the world’s media outlets, who issued a play-by-play of the pontiff’s failing organs and faculties the way you might call a square dance or a hog auction. The media had not paid such morbidly close attention to a person’s death since, well, a week earlier, when it was Terri Schiavo.

When the pope did pass away, certain protocol had to be followed to keep with tradition, as well as with the pope’s own wishes. His few earthly possessions were given away, his last will and testament read, his gym membership canceled. Hundreds of thousands of people converged on Rome to pay their last respects and to be fleeced by tourist traps.

And then the show REALLY began. Newspapers were suddenly full of graphics explaining to non-Catholics — and to Catholics who had simply forgotten in the 26 years since it was last relevant — how a pope is chosen. It works like this:

– First there is a designated period of 15 to 20 days during which there is no pope. This seems like it would be risky because it leaves the church open to attack by predators, but I guess the church knows what it’s doing.

– Then the college of cardinals meets in what’s called a “conclave” to choose a successor. The race is technically open to any baptized male member of the Catholic church, which means this is one more election that John Kerry lost.

– The cardinals are locked in the Sistine Chapel — well, I guess everyone else is locked OUT, as opposed to the cardinals being locked IN — to discuss who the new pope should be. They vote every morning and afternoon until someone gets a two-thirds majority, for up to 30 votes. After the 30th vote, only a simple majority is required. If no one gets a simple majority, then they check their math, because that’s impossible.

– After each vote, the ballots are burned. Special chemicals are added to alter the color of the smoke that emerges from the chimney: black smoke means the vote was inconclusive; white smoke means a new pope has been chosen; red smoke means the cardinals were lighting fireworks, the little scamps.

Benedict XVI has big shoes to fill, not to mention the large, pointy hat. John Paul II was beloved the world over for his goodness, and the Catholic church has had its share of troubles in recent years. Will Benedict be up to the challenge? I don’t know. I’m just glad the election is over and everyone can take down their campaign signs.

It's always tricky knowing which jokes to make in public and which jokes to reserve only for private viewing. If you get too sharp, it looks like you're bashing the Catholics, which I certainly don't mean to do. So I hope my Catholic readers won't see this column as anything more than the usual "Snide Remarks" jackassery.