by Jim Harris

I was passing by the newsstand when I saw the headline. It was in “MAN LANDS ON MOON”-sized letters plastered across the front page of the paper: “POPE RESIGNS.” Wow! I was so shocked that I almost swallowed my false teeth. “This hasn’t happened for 598 years,” I thought to myself. I reckoned that there would be big changes coming soon. Maybe some new Armani vestments or an ergonomically improved method of genuflecting. Exciting times indeed.

Pope Benedict declared that he no longer felt physically or mentally up to the job of leading the church, and would step down on Feb. 28. The newspaper article said that the 85-year-old pontiff had been seen of late dozing off during Mass. Honestly, it wasn’t until I read this article that I realized that falling asleep was NOT an integral part of the Mass. I regularly visit dreamland during the interminable, rambling sermons that punctuate most services.

I have to say, I wish the Pope well. He deserves some respite in his old age. It seems like Popes never have an easy time of it. Throughout history they’ve been imprisoned, banished, executed, you name it. And in my lifetime, they always seem to be falling down, breaking bones, having health crises, getting shot.

I mean, come on, as a Catholic school veteran, I know that suffering is considered good, and dying is even better, but geez, if the Pope can’t catch a little slack here on Earth, what hope is there for a shlub like me? I might as well just go on partying until I drop.

Anyway, you could say that this unexpected retirement has left leadership of the Catholic Church in Limbo, except that Pope Benedict himself deactivated (decommissioned?) Limbo in 2007, so they have to get to work quickly to elect a successor in order to avoid anarchy and rampant sinning.

Obviously, the Catholic Church is no stranger to publicity. They get more press than Justin Bieber and Nora the Piano Playing Cat combined. Not all of it is good publicity, however, so I have a suggestion that will turn picking a new Pope into good PR. Make it a reality TV show!

It could be like the popular, “Big Brother” series, where houseguest contestants are sequestered in a residence and forced to live together under constant surveillance, performing assigned chores. Periodically, they vote each other out of the house, until only two remain. Then a jury made up of previously evicted houseguests chooses a winner.

Imagine the possibilities. 118 Catholic Cardinals — with a couple of baseball’s Saint Louis Cardinals thrown in for good measure — locked in a medieval castle, tasked with unfamiliar jobs like making sandwiches or doing their own laundry. Hilarious disagreements would ensue over things like “Hey, who moved my scepter?” or “Who’s burning incense? I TOLD you, I’m allergic!” or “ I KNOW you’re not spitting tobacco in the house!” Who among them will seek an eye for an eye? Who will turn the other cheek? The world will eagerly tune in to find out.

The winner will receive all of the following:

• Leadership of over 1 billion Catholics worldwide.

• Legislative, executive and judicial power over the State of Vatican City, the only remaining absolute monarchy in Europe

• Three jewel-encrusted thrones (formal, casual, poolside)

• Artworks by da Vinci, Michelangelo and others

• Unlimited use of the Popemobile

• A lifetime supply of Pope-sadent toothpaste for a sparkling smile that says, “I’m infallible!”

• Total retail value of all the prizes: 98 trillion-billion dollars. Runners-up will receive coupons good for free breadsticks at Olive Garden.

Until recently, I thought that there were only two people in the world who would never retire — the Pope and my barber, Don. Now it’s down to just one person, so from now on when I’m feeling lost and need advice, I’ll have to go see Don (who is presently 112 years old) for some ancient wisdom. Just the other day, he said to me, “Jim, getting old is a freaking pain in the ass, but you gotta keep going for as long as you can.” Genius! Amen to that.