He comes with a name full of promises. Albino Luciani has given himself title to a bridge between two very different men and, at the same time, declared that he would be himself first. The 263rd pope has become John and Paul and The First.
Now, the Rome watchers suggest that we wait and see. Wait and see if this pope, with such an infectious smile and kindly manner, is a man of conservatism or a man of change - or a man who walks a line, as one suggested, right down "the extreme center."
I am only an amateur Rome watcher but an experienced change watcher, and what intrigues me most in the speculation about the new pope is the notion that a conservative, any conservative, is, by definition, anti-change.
In this country we tend to define conservatives by our political standards. For too long they have been people who sought to maintain the status quo more ardently than any ideal or philosophy. They often were simple and rigid "aginers."
But I think there is another definition of conservative, a psychological definition I first saw in a small book called "Change and Loss." There, sociologist Peter Marris described one way in which we are all conservatives. We all, he said, seek to conserve something so basic and simple we rarely even recognize it: the meaning of our life.
Within this definition there are "conservative" reasons for innovating change as well as resisting it. Even the risk-taker may be trying to hold onto this elusive "meaning." Similarly, a movement for social or institutional overhaul may be an attempt to actually "restore" a lost sense of meaning.
The psychological definition is important when we think generally about religion, or specifically about the passing of power in Rome.
Religion at its best serves two human functions: our need for rooted, traditional, even eternal, values; and need to help solve the contemporary problems of the meaning of life. But there are times when these two functions seem to split and conflict, and this has been one of them.
I have lived almost all of my life in a city where the Catholic Church is simply The Church. I have witnessed how often the church (like so many others) has chosen the political definition of the word (the defense of the status quo) over the psychological definition (the pursuit of meaning).
I have seen many, including my two closest friends, forced to choose between the value they place on religious continuity and community, and the value they place on fulfillment in their own lives.
They, and 10 million other people in this country, identify themselves as non-practicing Catholics. More would qualify as "convenience Catholics," or selective Catholics. Still others are categorized as "fallen away," though they may feel as if they have been elbowed away.
The issues of estrangement have most often been those of birth control and divorce - family matters that, many bitterly remind each other, are determined by bachelor clergy.
Many are now alienated from the rich traditions of their youth, the sense of mystery and ritual and complexity that was grafted onto their psyches, to maintain control in their everyday lives. Some of the most bereft people I have known are those who have lost their marital and their pastoral homes simultaneously. Others have left to seek some purpose for themselves and their families beyond that of continual reproduction.
Today, U.S. Catholics practice birth control in roughly the same number as other religious groups, and there are some vaguely renegade Catholic churches in liberal cities that will welcome (if not remarry) the divorced. But it is an uneasy posture here, and an impossible one in many other countries.
It would be remarkable if this new pastor, this man who carries the first impressions of humility and humanity, bridged another gap - not between Paul and John, but between the estranged and their religious roots. He could be the pope who pursued change to conserve meaning within the eternal Church and its mortal members. CAPTION: Picture, Pope John Paul I, By [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Mass for The Washington Post