Category Archives: Papacy

My Kind of Pope

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality June 2005

For an immigrant worker in Ireland suffering racial bullying, discrimination and isolation – who has more immediate power to improve the quality of his life and to proclaim the presence of Christ: his Irish Catholic workmates, or the Pope?

For the bullied child in an Irish classroom, whose compassion is more likely to make a difference – that of her Catholic classmates, or that of the Roman curia, twelve hundred miles away?

For those 300,000 Irish people who are clinically depressed because they have been deprived by modern society of all sense of their own beauty and dignity, who has more power to restore it: the pope in Rome, or their Catholic neighbours – prayerfully conscious of their obligation to build a warm, affirming and friendly community?

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The nub of all these questions is this: in exalting the papacy and central government of the Church, do we Catholics tend to undervalue our own potential – and evade our own obligation – to hasten the coming of the kingdom of God by exercising Christian leadership and initiative in our own space?

“I have the impression that the figure of the pope is praised too much. There is the danger of falling into the cult of the personality, which I absolutely do not want….”

It might surprise many Catholics that the source of these reservations about the papacy was none other than Pope John Paul I – and that they reflect very well indeed the attitude of the greatest pope of my lifetime, John XXIII. Had it not been for his calling of the second Vatican council in 1962, it is extremely doubtful that I would be a Catholic today.

It was Vatican II that proclaimed that truth itself ‘conveys itself by virtue of its own truth’ – not by virtue of the degree of pressure or coercion behind it. In accepting this principle of religious freedom – which had been ridiculed by Pope Pius IX – the church had set out decisively on a new relationship with modern society. The Church’s long toleration of religious coercion – justified by Augustine and many other great Catholic saints – had come to an end.

Own up to past mistakes

This process of owning up to the Church’s past mistakes continued under Pope John Paul II, and this for me was the most important creative aspect of his papacy. As a teacher of global history to schoolchildren I had often to deal with their dismay on hearing of the Inquisition, the long Catholic toleration of slavery, the forced baptism of the new subjects of Imperial Spain and Portugal, the persecution of the Jews. I could remain a Catholic only because my church had embarked on a road that would take it eventually – I felt sure – to an acknowledgement of its original mistake: the union of church and state under Constantine and his successors in the fourth century.

My ideal pope will acknowledge that mistake too, and fully endorse the principle of separating church and state, detaching the church finally from any association with coercive power.

It was Pope John XXIII also who insisted, in Pacem in Terris that the peace of the world depended upon the principle of the equal dignity of all. The Pope that I would like to see will insist that this principle applies to the papacy also. The process of removing all the pomp of a medieval monarchy must continue, demystifying the papacy. The tendency of the papal court to be self-regarding, and to exalt the pope as the only source of wisdom in the church, is a spiritual blemish that will become steadily more obvious in the television age.

Point to the Hollowness of Celebrity

And because my ideal pope will believe passionately in the principle of the equal dignity of all, he will also see through the hollowness of celebrity – perhaps the most dangerous feature of modern culture. Throughout the world, surveys of teenagers report that fame has become the great goal of most. Their ‘icons’ are pop singers, super models, film stars, sporting heroes. It is the advertised lifestyle of such people that fuels consumerism and endangers the global environment.

The desire for status, fame and singularity is what the Gospels call worldliness. In seeking to identify with those who are obscure, Jesus condemned it utterly. In accepting a shameful death he overcame it completely. His resurrection signifies especially his father’s exaltation of the virtue of humility.

A complete papal understanding of worldliness will therefore be expressed in uncompromising terms: it is not the pope, but the poor who stand highest in God’s hierarchy – so the media should give far more attention to the latter.

My ideal pope will therefore be self-deprecating, dismissive of pomp and inclined to send up media awe of himself. He will encourage every Catholic adult and child to ‘love God and do what you will’ to bring the reign of God in his and her own environment – because he, the pope, has less power to do so.

Restoring the freedom of the local church

Towards the end of the last papacy there was a celebrated debate between German Cardinals Ratzinger and Kasper over the relative importance of the universal and local church. Cardinal Ratzinger, a centralist, stressed the priority of the uniformity of the whole church, as determined by Rome. Cardinal Kasper stressed that the freedom of the local church is essential to its vibrancy – and therefore to the health of the whole. For him, unless the church is allowed to be primarily local, it will have no vital existence.

My ideal Pope will keep these two things in harmonious balance, so that Irish Catholicism can be free to be itself, without losing its Catholicity. There always has been a specifically Irish way of being Catholic – and we need to rediscover this with confidence.

Affirm the Mind of the Laity

Even in the era of Pope Pius XII Catholic children were taught to see themselves as temples of the Holy Spirit. Since wisdom is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, it is a restriction of the freedom of the Holy Spirit to deprive lay Catholics, young people especially, of a thinking and speaking role in their Church, a role especially in interpreting their own responsibility, given them by Vatican II – to consecrate the world to God.

This denial lies at the root of the alienation of a generation of young educated Irish Catholics from their own church in my lifetime. Although Irish bishops now often bemoan the rise of anticlericalism in Ireland, they still apparently cannot see that its most important source lies in their failure to create what Vatican II clearly envisaged – church structures that would allow all of the faithful to participate in a learning dialogue with their clergy and with one another.

As a consequence, all Irish Catholic life and education has suffered. Children who are subjected to an endless monologue from above soon lose interest – because they have effectively been told that their own questions, and their own intellects, are unimportant. Their role is merely to absorb the wisdom of someone else – like recording machines.

This was especially true in an era when virtually everyone became used to a learning environment in which students and teachers collaborate in asking, and answering, important questions. Unquestionable authorities, fearful of any divergence from the rigid verbal formulae of the catechism, and working out of an outdated understanding of education, have had a soporific, deadening effect on Catholic religious education generally.

Nothing else can explain the evaporation of baptised and confirmed Irish Catholic young people from our churches in recent times, almost as soon as they leave school.

This lack of respect for the mind of the laity, resulting in the continued denial of structures for internal dialogue and mutual enrichment, was the single greatest weakness of the last papacy. John Paul II virtually acknowledged this himself when, in September 2004 he told the US bishops that to hasten the healing of relationships in their own country they should create ‘better structures of participation, consultation and shared responsibility’.

As Vatican II had envisaged these by 1965, there never has been any good reason for four decades of delay in building them. Their absence as a means of hastening an earlier resolution of the problem of clerical child abuse, and avoiding the appalling scandals of the past decade, has had almost catastrophic consequences for the universal church.

End Clericalism

So my ideal pope will have no sympathy with the following:

“This church is in essence an unequal society, that is to say a society comprising two categories of persons, the shepherd and the flock….these categories are so distinct that the right and authority necessary for promoting and guiding all the members toward the goal of society reside only in the pastoral body; as to the multitude, its sole duty is that of allowing itself to be led and of following its pastors as a docile flock.”

This was a pronouncement of Pope Pius X – for whom lay people could never aspire to a leadership role. Instead, my ideal pope will say something like this:

“Having given all of his children the natural gift of intelligence, and having assured them also that the Holy Spirit would be with the whole church, the Trinity clearly intends that all of the faithful should participate in forming the mind of the church – especially in an era of universal education. Living as they do at the interface between the world and the church, the experience of lay people is a vital source of insight on the question of how we Christians are to help transform modern secular culture and reverse its steady disintegration. Bishops should therefore not only listen to their laity, but provide regular opportunities for doing so.”

Build a Global Family

Finally, my ideal pope will grasp fully the enormous potential of the church in a globally networked world to help build among all peoples, in cooperation with the other Christian and monotheistic traditions, a sense of global society as an extended family network – with the compassion to care for everyone.

Caring, like all popes, for the stability of family life he will call on all of us to make the world a safer place for children, less concerned with individual ambition than with the sufferings of those who can’t compete.

He might also at some point say:

“Every Christian adult or child, in reaching out spontaneously and lovingly towards another person in need, becomes a vicar of Christ – doing what we in Rome cannot. Popes should recognise that God often wishes to move his children directly. We must not get in the way by trying to control everything. We too need to trust in God, and to ‘chill out’ – for God has everything in hand.”