WHEN you think about it, the really surprising thing is how surprised we all were.
And pleased. When he was a bishop, the new Pope went to work by bus. He doesn’t like the idea of having a chauffeur.
Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t he an extraordinary man? Isn’t there, suddenly, new hope in the world? Well yes, maybe there is. When I was writing (without regret, and as an outsider to the Church) about the resignation of Pope Benedict a few weeks ago, I said his papacy had failed to reignite support for the Church, but that we’re all the poorer for the loss of values. I read all the speculation about who the next Pope might be — none of it that I can recall predicted the outcome correctly.
I did feel, and said, that “in all the pen pictures that have been printed about leading candidates, the words I’ve been looking for are missing. And that’s terribly sad, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. If the influence of the Church is ever to be restored, the things that must characterise the next papacy are simple enough. We need a humble, penitent, and loving Pope. Nothing else will make any difference to us. Nothing else will make us care.”
Maybe, just maybe, we might begin to care now. Of course we don’t know enough about the new Pope to be sure of anything, and of course controversies will emerge. But he certainly seems humble. A Pope who calls himself after the first modern saint (if you can call someone modern who died in the 13th century) who founded an entire religious order devoted to the idea of voluntary poverty; a Pope who says that the Church must reform or become completely irrelevant — surely that’s a Pope worth paying some attention to. And of course the phrase that has most resonance — a Church of the poor. The repeated use of that phrase, allied to all the anecdotes about the man’s own apparent humility, has an astonishing ring to it in the world in which we live. The week before the Pope was elected, another man of undoubted commitment to the poor died. That was Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela.
It’s hard to imagine that Chavez would ever have regarded himself as having anything in common with the Pope. Although a practicing Catholic, Chavez hated the organised Church, regarding it as an enemy of his revolution. It would be ironic if the first Pope to come from Latin America, elected in the week Chavez died, became a sort of reincarnation of his socialist philosophy.
I must be going soft if I’m even entertaining the notion of a socialist Pope. A Pope who channels his energies into directing the attention of his Church towards deprivation and poverty — areas that the Church in recent times has paid lip service to but no more — would be enough.
But to go back to where I started, the fact that the Pope prefers to travel by bus, and insists on paying his hotel bill in person, made world headlines. It was a sign of a different person, and of course that was welcome in itself, but perhaps more importantly it was a sign of hunger. Of how hungry the world is for precisely that type of leadership. When millions of people the world over struggle to cope with the meaning of austerity in their own lives, here is a leader who embraces austerity for himself, who sets out, as far as one can see, to walk the walk.
There’ll be lots about the Pope we don’t like. There’s no sign in his background that he has nay intention of setting out to liberalise the Church’s teachings on same-sex marriage. He’s not going to change the age-old and shameful attitude of the Church to women. He may wish to tackle the insidious mentality of too many in his own Church to the abuse of children, but last weekend’s astonishing statement by the Cardinal Archbishop of Durban — that paedophiles should not be seen as criminals — demonstrates how far he has to go there. And his efforts to reform the mysterious and apparently corrupt workings of the Roman Curia may require far more energy and time than an elderly man has.
But just imagine how we’d feel here if our Government had dedicated itself creating a government of the poor, or if the leaders of Europe were genuinely committed to following the principles of someone like Francis of Assisi towards a union of the poor. I know the first time the Government went up to Áras an Uachtaráin to receive their seals of office, they went by coach. The memories of fleets of limousines rolling up to Farmleigh and other luxurious establishments, ferrying the previous government to various doomed meetings, were still raw then, and the word went out that this new government was trying to establish a different, simpler style, more in keeping with the times.
But all that has faded, hasn’t it? There’s no doubt in my mind that one of the reasons the Government’s popularity has shrunk, at least for now, is because there really is no sense of shared sacrifice, or shared purpose, to any of the things that have been done. The Pope may want to create a Church of the poor — but in Ireland it is the poor, and especially women struggling in poverty, that have borne a significant share of the cutbacks austerity has brought. For us, austerity hasn’t had a bottom line. There has never been a simple statement to the effect that some things have to be protected, no matter what.
GOVERNMENTS here, and throughout the world, seem to have an unerring gift for telling us all that austerity is for other people, but not for them. There were shots on the news the other night of a Brussels meeting deciding the immediate fate of the people of Cyprus — among other things, deciding to take a share of the life savings of thousands of ordinary Cypriots. Everyone in the news shots was smiling and laughing, and they all looked entirely pleased with themselves. And then they got into their limos and went back to their decent hotels, or off to a VIP lounge in the airport before being ferried home.
Symbolism, you say, and perhaps you’re right. But when Francis of Assisi gave away all his clothes, and wrapped himself in a piece of cloth made of the coarsest hemp, he created a symbol that inspired millions for centuries. The symbolism of settling for less when you’re in a position of power is a powerful statement. When it’s backed up by action, that statement can change the world — or at least the small bit of the world that matters to us.
I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but I’d love to see our leaders, at home and throughout Europe, decide to follow the Pope’s example. Of course I want to see his words followed by deeds, but I have a funny feeling he’s going to surprise us quite a bit by the time he’s done. I wonder are our own leaders capable of surprising us any more?
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