Pope Lando is perhaps the coolest pope you never heard of. And why should you have heard of him? He reigned for only a few months between 913 and 914, during an obscure period of history that goes by the name Saeculum obscurum, according to Lando's Wikipedia entry. Pope Lando is most famous for something he had nothing to do with, and which is completely irrelevant to anything of import - the fact that some thousand years later he would share a name with a mustachioed character on Star Wars.
Thinking back on this Saeculum obscurum during which Lando reigned as Roman pontiff has got me thinking just how "obscurum" most of history actually is, compared with our more recent times. We don't know much about what Pope Lando did or said, and that's ok. For the pope's job is not necessarily to say or do anything all that noteworthy, but rather is to preserve and hold fast to what has been entrusted to the Church in the Deposit of Faith. Unless the times demand it, doing nothing is usually the most sensible thing to do.
We today are more used to seeing our popes as public figures and celebrities. And this can be a good thing. We see all the images of Pope Francis embracing the disfigured man, greeting children, speaking of "not judging" and so forth; we read about how he lives in a simple apartment and eschews luxury; we look at his portrayal in the public sphere and we see this as a great evangelizing tool. People across the globe see this and are inspired to come closer to God. This is good.
His predecessor, too, was a public figure. So much of what Benedict XVI did was full of rich symbolism. To give just one example, look at his visit to the UK in 2010, a visit I was able to participate in. He landed in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he was greeted by Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 16, which is the feast day of St. Ninian. Ninian is an obscure saint to most of the world, but he was the first Christian missionary into what we now know as Scotland. So the date was deeply significant.
While in the UK, Benedict XVI beatified John Henry Cardinal Newman. Cardinal Newman (who is the patron of campus ministies, by the way) was an Anglican who converted to Catholicism. During the papal Mass celebrated in Westminser Abbey, Benedict wore a stole that was originally made for Pope Leo XIII. And Leo XII was the pope who wrote Apostolicae Curae, the document declaring Anglican orders null and void. Like the date chosen for his arrival in Scotland, the choice of vestments for this Mass was no accident. Everything Benedict did was carefully thought out and purposeful, and is of rich symbolic meaning for those in the public with a keen eye. This symbolism would largely be lost had Benedict reigned in obscurity.
And do we even need to mention the public aspect of the long and gloried reign of John Paul II? JPII was the ultimate media pope! Leaving alone his ability to shine in front of a crowd or a camera, he wrote something like a billion pages of text as his legacy, a rich theological treasure that the Church will be mining for decades to come. Again, very much a figure in the public eye.
We are used to our leaders in the church - especially our popes - being public figures. We look to them for inspiration and guidance. And we hope and pray that their actions in the public eye will be as evangelizers, bringing people closer to Christ. This is a good thing.
But let's not forget a time when this was not so. Let us not forget about those many popes and bishops who labored in obscurity. In days before the internet, before television, before the radio, before even the printing press... what must that have been like for the average Catholic? When a new pope was elected it may take months for the news to even reach you. And when you heard the name of the new Holy Father, it likely meant nothing to you. There was no "Vatican Watch." There was no list of papabili circulating in the blogosphere. You simply had faith that the Church was being led by the Holy Spirit and you prayed for the man currently sitting in the Chair of Peter. I imagine Pope Lando's short reign was over before many of the faithful in Europe even learned his name.
And here's the take home lesson. The relative obscurity that our Church leaders toiled in during the pre-mass media days did not stymie the growth of the Church. Evangelization happened. It happened without the photos of popes embracing the poor and downtrodden. It happened without the new encyclicals being issued every year or two. It happened without the blogs and the podcasts and the tweets. It happened because faithful Catholics everywhere lived the gospel. It happened because of people like you and I.
I'm not saying the our modern media - from Gutenburg to Zuckerman - is not a good tool for evangelization. It is. And I am super happy that our modern popes and bishops are learning to use every means of communication possible to spread the light of Christ. That's a very good thing. But we cannot allow ourselves to use this as an excuse to rest on our laurels. We cannot fall into the trap of letting our church leaders do all the hard work of evangelizing and thinking therefore we don't have to.
Because here's the truth of the matter - as ordained ministers in the Church, their primary role is to minister to and support the laity. And as lay faithful, our primary role is to go out there and bring others to Christ. By virtue of their baptism, priests and bishops - and yes, the pope - share in this role. And God bless them. But it is not their job alone. That job belongs to you and me. So let's be grateful for the souls won over through the examples of the public figures in the Church, seen through modern media. But let's not allow ourselves to become lazy in our own evangelical efforts. Even today, the most important work done in the Church does not get reported by the news; because it happens in the parishes, in the workplace, and in the homes of the faithful every single day, who are living the Gospel of Christ.