“The Pope, yes, he ees a good man,” he conceded. “It’s the people around him that ees the problem.”
He went on: “The priests say they are poor but (here he wagged a finger while he flicked cigar ash out the window) look at all these fancy churches.”
The Vatican, he told me, was financially corrupt. And Pope John Paul I had been ‘done in’ because he tried to clean things up. I’d heard it all before, of course; he was simply retelling the plot of The Godfather Part III.
Plenty of church scandals have proven to be all too true, as we know. But even when there is no evidence for allegations, like the story of John Paul I being done in, there are plenty of people who will spread the bad story.
Senator David Norris does it, too. He told the UCD Law Society last Thursday night that ‘evil’ Cardinal Josef Ratzinger used to be in the Hitler Youth (he either didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, that membership of the Hitler Youth was compulsory at the time).
Norris also found the Pope guilty of monstrous vanity for creating so many saints (463) during his pontificate. He was especially scathing about the Pope’s decision to canonise Monsignor Josemaria Escrivà, the founder of the lay Catholic organisation, Opus Dei.
Sometimes we prefer to see only bad in people, and ignore the good. Church figures have often been guilty of this, but these days they are more sinned against than sinning.
Last Sunday’s canonisation of Josemaria Escrivà and news of the early beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta (the last step before full sainthood) are, in themselves, both ‘good news’ stories.
Yet there have been plenty of critics to suggest the honours are premature or undeserved. The critics are wrong on a number of counts. Firstly, the Pope’s motive for proclaiming so many saints is to reinforce the Second Vatican Council message that ‘all are called to holiness.’
Extraordinary people like Mother Teresa will certainly be canonised, but many more of the Pope’s heroes are ordinary people who did the simple things well. And canonisation is not a proclamation that the saints were perfect people; rather that they had ‘heroic virtue’ and persisted in their faith in a manner that sets an example for all people. There must also be a widespread devotion towards the would-be saint.
Escrivà is a case in point. Ever since my college years I’ve had a warm regard for Opus Dei and many of its members who, in turn, have been inspired by the ideas of Monsignor Escriva to persist in the Christian life. While membership of Opus Dei has not been something I felt called to myself, the Opus Dei members I know are thinking people who combine intellectual engagement with their faith, with a desire to spread the Gospel in the way the founder of the Christian religion intended.
They do it in very practical ways. Some Opus Dei members have been involved in the Cleraun Media Conferences which bring together top Irish and international media practitioners to reflect on the media and its role in society. This is public service indeed. Yet the organisation itself has been the subject of media controversy on a number of occasions.
Back in 1992, the late Mr Justice Rory O’Hanlon lost his job as the President of the Law Reform Commission because he criticised Albert Reynolds’s handling of the abortion issue. The judge was widely criticised for following his conscience and his membership of Opus Dei was widely touted as discrediting his views.
Then in 1994 came the fall of the Reynolds government over the Brendan Smyth affair.
For a while there was talk of members of the judiciary and other organisations being ‘vetted’ to determine if they were members of Opus Dei, the Knights of Columbanus and other Catholic organisations. This happened because of rumours that the Church had interfered to delay the extradition of Fr Brendan Smyth, a convicted paedophile, from Northern Ireland. However, the State was not shaken to its foundations, as Deputy Pat Rabbitte had predicted, because there was no truth in the rumours. There was no Catholic conspiracy.
The damage was done, though. The inference had been raised that Opus Dei members were lacking in independence of mind, or integrity, or both. The pundits did not, of course, acknowledge that people may be biased and agenda-driven even if they are not religious, or regardless of whether they are members of any particular organisation.
The irony is that Opus Dei stresses the complete freedom of its members in their professional lives and their political opinions, a fact that was brought home to me recently when I met two members of the organisation campaigning on opposite sides of the Nice Treaty referendum. The only limitation is the one you would expect from any Catholic organisation: they may not undermine public morality or the teaching of their own Church.
Even prominent Church members have failed to see this point at times. Monsignor Denis Faul, perhaps the most fair-minded of commentators on Northern Ireland over the years, appeared to equate Opus Dei with the Orange Order when he suggested some years ago that members should declare their affiliation when applying to join the police in Northern Ireland.
But Opus Dei, far from being a secretive political organisation, is in fact a ‘personal prelature’ of the Catholic Church, a new structure envisaged at the Second Vatican Council. Opus Dei’s central idea is about the holiness of everyday things.
Ordinary people can become saints, it says, by passionately loving the world as they find it every day, by doing their work to the best of their ability, and by spreading the message of Christianity among those they meet in their working lives. It’s hard to keep that a secret.
This idea was fully embraced by the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council, but it got its ultimate vindication on Sunday when the Pope declared Opus Dei’s founder, Josemaria Escrivà, to have been a saint himself.
Escrivà’s critics say the organisation he founded is elitist. But I wonder if they are tarring an entire organisation with the negative human traits of a few of its members. Certainly there was nothing elitist about the crowds - over 300,000 people - which thronged St Peter’s Square on Sunday.
The people there were mostly Catholics, many of them very young, and notable for nothing so much as their desire to love God, live decent lives and bring their families up well. They were the kind of people who don’t cause social problems and, through their taxes, pay for many of those who do. It is ironic how often people who give stability to society are criticised as being conservative or rigid.
Three Irish bishops made the journey to Rome for Escrivà’s canonisation, reflecting, perhaps, increased acceptance of Opus Dei in Ireland, and the Pope’s own enthusiasm for its members as active Catholics who are willing to go out and bat for their faith.
In that sense, my taxi-driver couldn’t have been more wrong. The people around the Pope last Sunday, hundreds of thousands of them, were not the problem. Dishonesty, selfishness and a lack of solidarity with the poor are the real problems facing Ireland and the world. The people I saw are part of the solution.