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The Holy See and succession

You’ve got to give it to the Catholic Church, they do things in style.

The process in most organisations, when they are looking for a new leader, is to get a bunch of people to sit hunched in soulless offices and thrash it out over Formica tables and pots of over-brewed coffee. The result is announced by a press release. New popes, however, are elected by a bunch of men fluttering down baroque corridors in colourful gowns, talking in Latin, fidgeting with prayer beads and channelling the Almighty. 

They let the world know what they’ve decided via an eccentric system of smoke-signals. Still, it seems to work.

Things don’t always go to plan, though, for the Holy See. Just a few weeks ago the pope released a couple of doves of peace from his window in St Peter’s, only to see one of them immediately get savaged by an opportunistic sea-gull. (Time magazine described it as the “seagull of irony”). You might well think someone was trying to tell you something – especially if your job description involves being the Creator’s conduit in the material realm.

Even putting diabolical seagulls to one side, it’s a bit odd that that pope’s resignation took everyone by surprise, as I vividly remember at the time of his election people saying this might happen on the grounds that the Holy Father was going to get very doddery very soon. Yes, nobody has willingly resigned since 1294, but life expectancy has historically been considerably lower than it is now, and people tended to shuffle off this mortal coil in double-quick time in an era before penicillin and the germ theory of disease.

It’s not often you hear this phrase, but the latest developments in the Catholic Church are a sign of the times. Medical science means that life expectancy has increased massively over the past decades – the pope has a pacemaker – and as we all know people can and want to work longer. What counts as old is being re-defined. Old ain’t what it used to be.

The pope was happy to stand aside, but not everybody who is getting past it will be so willing to go quietly and – as they say in British politics – spend more time with their family. Or in the case of family businesses, less time with their family. And it matters. Octogenarians might believe that they are as vigorous as they were in their twenties, but it’s just not so. And there’s a point when the gains in experience are offset by being out of touch and set in your ways.

The pope knew the time had come to throw in the pallium, but hard-nut entrepreneurs are not always so blessed with self-knowledge, or humility. The younger generation should be prepared to plant the seed of resignation early – or be ready to use force to make stubborn oldies do the right thing. 

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