Embarking on an upstate speaking tour, Robert McClory was driving into Utica when he learned that the conservative-leaning Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany would become the next pope, stirring a sentiment he had felt once before.
"It was similar to the feeling I had on 9/1 1. I was kind of stunned," said McClory, who lives in Chicago. He has authored several books on controversial subjects involving the papacy and often contributes to the National Catholic Reporter.
When McClory swung into Western New York for a lecture Saturday at Daemen College, he wanted to compare his feelings about the new Pope Benedict XVI with those of his audience.
McClory's visit was sponsored by Call to Action, a small but determined force within the church that, among other things, wants the hierarchy to listen to the laity more often, local churches to help select their bishops and the priesthood opened to women and married men.
So members of Call to Action, too, were not overly thrilled that the puff of white smoke and Tuesday's pealing of bells announced Ratzinger's ascension. As the head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he had maintained a cordon around church doctrine, defended traditional teachings and, at times, became a lightning rod for criticism, not surprising for anyone in such a position.
"We have our work cut out for us," one woman in the audience of about 70 people told McClory.
With that, McClory launched into his talk about "The Democratization of the Catholic Church," a subject on which a friend once commented, "We didn't know you were writing fiction."
McClory, however, described a church which in its two millenniums has been more democratic than not, more participatory than not and more willing than not to involve lay people in major decisions of the ages.
Church leaders sampled the laity's opinion for the Conference of Constantinople, held around A.D. 330 to resolve an issue roiling the masses: Was Jesus God?
The conference concluded that "Jesus partakes of the nature of God," McClory said.
In determining whether people who had strayed from the church to escape persecution from Roman emperors, Cyprian, a third century bishop of Carthage in North Africa -- after divining the will of the people -- adopted the more permissive view that the lapsed should be allowed back.
And in the late 18th century, John Carroll was elected by priests, not selected by Rome to be bishop of Baltimore, the first bishop in the United States.
"The laity had a substantial voice in all things," McClory said. "Why don't we have that today? Gradually the church was becoming more and more centralized. The popes were gradually becoming more and more paranoid."
At the start of the last century, Pope Pius X expected the laity to follow pastors like an obedient flock, McClory said.
"We entered the early part of the 20th century in what I would call an ice age. Most of us lived in, or were trained under, that cold period," he said, as heads nodded in the crowd of people mostly 50 or older.
The Second Vatican Council, convened in 1962, provided a shocking thaw as it established the laity as a collegial body with the pope. But to McClory, "this great moment in the history of the church" has been systematically pushed into history.
When he now assesses the democratization of the church, he likens it to a Mercedes Benz with all the bells and whistles, but one critical flaw.
"You have no gas, and no way of getting gas," he said. "So all you can do is go out in the garage and sit in the car and go 'vroom' and make motor noises. You can't go anywhere."
In other words, the machinery is there, but it won't turn on.
In a ray of hope about Pope Benedict XVI, who will be installed today, McClory and some in the audience took heart in his advocating a return to Vatican II and ecumenism, the process of cooperating among faiths.
"I think we can say, as John Paul always said, 'Be not afraid,' " McClory said. "I can assure you it's coming. I cannot tell you when."