Wednesday 21 October 2020
Given that I am the author of a book which was considered anti-Pope (which it wasn’t), it is very surprising for me to witness recent actions of Pope Francis, and to read papal documents and speeches which show that we are in very close harmony. Some of his very strongly worded thoughts are virtually identical to those I expressed in The Pope’s Armada twenty five years ago. So I am starting an occasional series of posts on this site which I will call - perhaps cheekily, but with serious intentions - The Pope and I! As a Prologue (like Das Rheingold to Wagner’s Ring), here is an article I wrote in March 2013, just before Francis was elected. Looking at it now, I feel that in Francis we got exactly what we needed - exactly what I described then. After the horrible drought of ‘Saint’ John Paul II and Benedict XVI, finally RAIN!
It has been a papal election like no other. The Catholic Church is torn by a very public crisis. The world-wide paedophile scandal has led to mass walk-outs of members in the Catholic heartlands – including Ireland and the United States. The Vatileaks debacle has highlighted corruption and division at the very heart of the Church, within the Curia, and its central government. All this against a background of division between the faithful about what the basic message and ethos of the Catholic Church should be in the 21st century – the role of women, for example, and an understanding of the nature of man and sexuality in the light of modern science. The urgency of dealing with this crisis has been highlighted by Pope Benedict’s shock resignation – a frank admission that at his advanced age he is simply not up to dealing with a problem on this scale and at the same time an urgent reminder that it must be dealt with.
In their pre-conclave deliberations, the job description for the next pope emerged from interviews the cardinals gave before voting began: he must be a man of God yet with the necessary strength and skill to reform the Curia; he must have no interest in cultivating a personal image yet possess a genuine warmth and spontaneity, enabling him to reach out not only to the most alienated among his own flock but also those of other faiths and none; he must be a communicator at the highest level, yet a man of the people; he must possess a vision of the Church’s long-term needs yet bring immediate healing to the divisions, hurt and bitterness felt by many in the Church. He must be a man whose heart and mind can encompass the whole of humanity and not just Catholics.
An impossible dream? Possibly, but this job description for our times is a perfect fit for arguably the greatest pope of the last century – perhaps of the last few centuries – Pope John XXIII. Elected as a caretaker pope in 1958 at the age of 76, he turned out to be the Church’s greatest reformer in 500 years with his shock announcement of the Second Vatican Council, an event which would bring the all Church’s bishops together to hammer out a blueprint for ‘The Church in the Modern World’ – the title of one the Council’s seminal documents. What was extraordinary about John – and set the tone for his Council – was that he focused only on the good in people and society. He spoke of the ‘signs of the times’ – his sense of God at work in contemporary society, with its desire for peace and reconciliation in the post-war years.
In his speech at the opening ceremony of the Council he set himself against 'the prophets of doom' among his own collaborators (he was referring to the traditionalist cardinals of the Curia) for whom 'the modern world is nothing but betrayal and ruination', contrasting this view with his conviction that 'Providence is guiding us towards a new order of human relationships which, thanks to human effort and yet far surpassing its hopes, will bring us to the realisation of still higher and undreamed of expectations.' The Pontiff went on to emphasise that the goal of this Council - unlike most previous Councils, and in particular, his Council's immediate forerunner, Vatican I - would be a positive one of encouragement rather than condemnation: ‘to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. [The Church]...meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.’
How ironic, therefore, that Pope Benedict, in a speech late last year proclaiming a Year of Faith to mark the 50th anniversary of the Council, should condemn today’s world in the most bitter terms: ‘Recent decades have seen the advance of a spiritual “desertification”. In the Council’s time it was already possible from a few tragic pages of history to know what a life or a world without God looked like, but now we see it every day around us. This void has spread…This, then, is how we can picture the Year of Faith: a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world.’ Benedict’s speech typifies the image of the pope, already well-established by John Paul II, as a finger-wagging, anachronistic figurehead, whose authority has been rendered hollow by the revelations of wrong-doing among the Catholic clergy.
If his successor is to fulfil his mission as bridge-builder (Pontiff) and the servant of the servants of God, then, like Pope John XXIII, he must be able to listen, to discern the positive and hopeful ‘signs of the times’, to encourage the good in individuals and society. He must be able to answer this question (a line from the Pulitzer-prize winning musical South Pacific) to Catholics and non-Catholics alike: ‘I know what you are against – what are you for?’