THE NEWS BROKE on Monday morning and people were shell-shocked. Some church people who spoke used that word – shock. But I don’t understand it. Yes, it was a surprise, but hardly shocking. The real shock was that John Paul II didn’t also have the sense or gumption or even faith to have done the same. Wasn’t he advised to do it?
Benedict surprised people, but he often did. It’s delightful that he has now broken with tradition of staying in the post until death and this could possibly be his most radical decision.
Pope Benedict is an interesting man, but many were saddened in 2005 when he was elected. It seemed we were to have continuity inflicted on us rather than any new energetic leadership. However Benedict was also misunderstood. He worked for John Paul II in the Congregation for the Doctrine office and was spoken of as John Paul’s rottweiler, which defined him.
I remember a time when Joseph Ratzinger was invited to give the Tablet Lecture in London. The journalists turned up to scrutinise him but he charmed them. He was then the real academic and, at home, in the banter of argument. He won them over completely.
I was asked by a radio reporter about my views on his trip to the UK and I said it would be a huge success. I said he would speak on the issues of the day; he would come across as a gentle man with a smile; he would listen; he would show his reflective mind. People would be won over by him. I was also asked how I felt he would be welcomed to Ireland. I was very dubious about that.
When I read his letter to the people of Ireland after the Ryan and Murphy Reports, I found the core of the letter to be very pastoral and warm. The best of the man came out in those words. When it came to recommendations – it didn’t sound like him at all. In fact, it was ridiculous.
John Paul II
John Paul II was a giant of a man on the world stage. He had a great presence and was a man of influence who gave the Church a new place in world politics. However, he was a creature of his own past. He never managed to live the life of faith in the ‘free world.’ He was a fighter and a very tough opponent. He spoke with great eloquence and his actor’s ability mesmerised people. But his words sounded better than they read – or were. It was very sad that he remained as Pope for so long.
The church needed someone better than he was and better than he could be. I was deeply saddened by his lack of insight. I also think that the process of his Beatification began with undue haste, which disregarded the mistakes of his papacy and his rigidity. It follows too that many who were selected as Leaders (bishops throughout that long papacy then became clones of his outlook). That was bound to be the case, however it doesn’t help our future.
Sometimes it seems that the Church being created is more like the establishment that Christ came to replace.
Pope Benedict was never a commanding media presence. However, he reflected deeply and did address the issues of the day. In many ways he came to the office much too late. His theological musings were deeply impressive and needed. Of course he was also snarled up in his own bureaucracy and fears. He embraced retrenchment – but now he is an old man. He is tired. He doesn’t have the energy and it’s wonderful that he recognises that he must go.
What now? Who now?
This assembly of old men (in the main) who will gather in Conclave are very conservative. Many are shattered by the collapse of the Church in the West. Some can only see one way forward – that is a retreat to the past. My hope is that they will listen to the wider church and to the wider world. I hope they will listen and search for a man who can be strong enough to have something to say in our world today and be a leader of inspiration.
We want a big man who is not overwhelmed by problems and who shows people that Christ is good news. We need a man who isn’t afraid of the media, who can speak, who can lift our spirits, who is young enough in mind and heart, who is humble, who is not afraid of change, who knows that God can deal with every question and every problem, who realises that not everything depends on him, and who truly can call forth leadership in our Church.
The local church is a wonderful place to be, where community and the joy of faith is experienced, however the central government of it all can be such an embarrassment.
Our Church has to be outward looking and refreshing. We must show that Christ does make a difference and we aren’t afraid. It would be right and proper if women were given their say, that all our leaders retired at 70… this list could go on and on!
But we need above all a man of real faith, who isn’t afraid of the world.
Fr Seamus Ahearne presides over Rivermount Parish, Finglas.