TERRY PRONE: Francis is the first Pope who doesn’t beat around the bush

I don’t know about this Pope at all. I really don’t. He doesn’t fit in the pattern of popes I grew up with, writes Terry Prone

The Papacy, for me, started with Pius the 12th, a man of visible asceticism who seemed born for a tiara and whose hands seemed to have been shaped for formal front, side and other side blessings. His papacy was definitive.

My family had a peculiar relationship with the Church. My father served Mass every day in the convent of the French Sisters of Charity. He also spent pre-lunch on Sunday giving out about the bad theology manifest in the priest’s sermon that morning. My mother would sometimes condemn the sermon for Hallmark Card banality, muttering the giveaway phrases into the oven as she checked on the chicken. Now and then she’d take a different tack and have a go at the curate’s diction. Very hot on diction, my mother was. My sister would then go highminded on us, announcing that a little Christian charity wouldn’t go amiss, which, like all calls to virtue, pissed everybody off and so we would sit down to lunch in domestic disarray. To this day, the smell of roast chicken evokes for me the fascinating dissection of a sermon, and Sunday lunch is never quite complete for me without a bloody fine row.

Francis is the first Pope who doesn’t beat around the bush

The local priest might — without ever knowing it — get the full brunt of the Prone family criticism, and did so on a weekly basis. The Pope, however, was above our collective criticism. I suspect that this was because His Holiness nearly always spoke either Latin or Italian. The Italian was because Popes, back in the day, were always Italian. Italy held the Papacy franchise. My father would willingly have translated the Latin, but tended to lose his audience early in the first conjunctive. On Christmas Day, when the British were lined up by the radio to listen to the Queen, we were lined up to listen to the Pope. Urbi et Orbi.

When John XVIII arrived, he was Italian but a bit different, although the word was that we wouldn’t have to worry about him being different because he was only a filler-in, really. He had quietly rescued Jews during the Holocaust, he was not an intellectual, he was warm and smiley and didn’t like being carried around on that stretcher throne thing because it gave him vertigo. But — even though, thanks to his Vatican Council, we ended up with priests facing us on the altar and a Mass in a language we could understand — once he died, the norm of the Papacy reasserted itself pretty quickly. The Papacy was always for peace. That was one eternal verity. The Papacy was always for abstruse orthodoxy. But above all, the Papacy was against sex and contraception and abortion.

The Vatican
The Vatican

The 10 commandments had their place, but it wasn’t much of a place. Thou shalt not steal didn’t seem to cover white collar stealing, for example. Drinking too much came with the Catholic territory and a favourite Catholic writer, Graham Greene, made an icon of the alcoholic priest. Growing up, we knew that we could drink and smoke ourselves to death and heaven would still be open to us. We could beat the hell out of our own children, or — if we were put in charge of other people’s children — we could beat the hell out of those children without the smallest fear that, come our clog-popping moment, God would meet us at the Holy Gates and refuse us admission. As long as we kept ourselves virginal until our wedding day, and once married, stayed faithful and sexually obliging without using contraception, we were grand.

Every now and again, a Church figure, usually a maverick priest, would suggest we might usefully focus on other aspects of morality, but the proposition tended to die on the vine. When Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published, setting the environmental movement alight, the papacy said nothing significant on the issue, and, other than general platitudes, continued on that road for decades.

With corporate crime, whether in relation to asbestos or cigarette manufacturers concealing the truth about their killer products and actively getting in the way of attempts to recompense victims dying painful deaths as a result of consuming those products, the papacy took no stance on the issue.

For the last 50 years, the papacy has not been markedly present in any of the major issues of morality affecting the world. Explanations were available in bundles, none of them satisfactory, all of them designed to preserve the distant authority of current and future vicars of Christ, despite the fact that the man they represented was immediate and direct in his communication, and despite the fact that Christ dealt with everything from corporate hypocrisy to self-serving sanctimony to disability to poverty in real, vivid and accessible terms. It was just a given, and nobody expected any different.

And then along came Pope Francis with his relentless insistence on odd statements, some of them visual and physical, like paying his own B&B bill directly after being made Pope, and, more recently, tootling around in the US in a little Fiat even in a procession of much bigger and more prestigious cars. That wouldn’t be too much of a shock to the system if it was on its own, but it’s not.

Francis is the first Pope who doesn’t beat around the bush

For the first time in living memory, we have a Pope who doesn’t make general statements about morality, but one who gets specific. Every parish should take refugees, he says. No ifs or buts or subtleties, like we might have comfortably expected from a Jesuit. No reservation caused by the bulk of the refugees not being Christian.

He has made a similarly direct statement about responsibility for climate change. And, before the weekend, he came out with another. He didn’t raise questions about the death penalty. He said stop it. Everywhere in the world. Just stop it. Abandon it. Ban it. Nor did he offer a letter of comfort, accepting that in certain circumstances, it would be, if not acceptable, at least understandable. Nope. He talked of the humanity in every individual and how it must be respected. Didn’t get into any of the arguments about what victims are entitled to, how some killers are unfixable, how killing them must be a deterrent, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Just said “Stop it.”

Since, at least in the US, people of faith have always made up the majority of those Arthur Koestler called “hanghards,” to have the Pope come out and call for a complete global ban on capital punishment is not a populist move. But this seems to be an unpolitical Pope who has grasped that it’s not the behind-the-scenes work that is his job and will be his legacy, but his use of the papal megaphone. He seems to get the “going therefore, teach ye all nations” message in a precise and personal way. And he seems to be determined to use the popularity generated by his warm informality to open a door to serious calls to immediate action. He will take some time to get used to.

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