A pilgrim's radiant progress

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 September, 2010, 12:00am

Benedict XVI is the antithesis of a pop star - elderly, shy, set in his ways, even finding it hard to hold a note. Yet in Britain last week he received massive, pop-star like adulation, with successive crowds of 120,000 lining the streets of Edinburgh merely to watch him pass by, 60,000 for mass in Glasgow, 80,000 in London's Hyde Park for a prayer vigil. Tens of thousands more lined his route elsewhere - 60,000 in Birmingham - many holding banners proclaiming their love for him.

Benedict made a deep impression, not merely on the crowds. British Prime Minister David Cameron, in bidding farewell, thanked the pope and claimed that he had 'challenged the whole country to sit up and think ... We can all share in your message of working for the common good'.

Might I suggest that it is time for Benedict to get out more and meet his people, kiss babies, shake hands, bless and be blessed, feel the affection and love and realise that being a grumpy old man is not the best way to lead the Catholic Church. The moment Benedict was allowed space by his security guards, he became transformed, radiant, particularly when meeting the young and the old. If he can remember this pilgrim's fervour, the biggest achievement of Benedict's British trip could be in changing the Pope himself.

Without being blasphemous, I can point to a precedent. In the Old Testament you find an almighty God who is angry at the wayward, disobedient behaviour of his stiff-necked people, who defy him time and again. But keep reading and you see how God becomes affectionate and forgiving, and cannot abandon or stop loving his people, whatever their excesses.

Benedict is very much a prisoner of his past. Before becoming Pope, he was head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the church's watchdog on matters of faith and morals. Hence his not so affectionate nickname, 'the Pope's Rottweiler', in a job he carried out with great theological knowledge and zeal.

He also had the misfortune to succeed John Paul II, one of the most charismatic figures of the 20th century. But in spite of his achievements in helping dismantle the Soviet communist empire and his popularity in the world at large, for the Catholic Church, John Paul was just short of a disaster.

He appointed a generation of controversial bishops, conservative in doctrine, who often rejected the Pope's own, progressive social and economic agenda. Many US Catholic bishops have been described as 'the Republican Party at prayer'. In some prominent cases in Europe, bishops were appointed over the clear protests of local people, as if to demonstrate that the Vatican was in charge and couldn't care less what ordinary Catholics thought.

At the same time, John Paul was less good at charming or getting to grips with the Vatican bureaucracy. Increasingly, as he reigned longer and his ill health got worse, the church lacked a leader who could give its internal government coherent guidance. Worst of all, John Paul developed some questionable friendships, most notoriously with a priest who was proved to be both a womaniser and a child molester, including of his own son. But he had the pope's protection because he was a wonderful fund-raiser for the church and a leading evangeliser.

This year, Benedict's Vatican issued a statement that the priest - who died two years ago - had been 'immoral' and led a 'life deprived of scruples and authentic religious feeling'.

Benedict has had an awful secular press, particularly over the widespread and heinous child abuse crimes. But this is unfair to him personally, since both as Cardinal Ratzinger and as Pope, Benedict asserted the clear teaching of the church - that abusing a child is a grave sin. Unfortunately, he was slower to understand the extent to which his brother bishops in many countries covered up or downplayed the abuse. Equally important, he was slow to understand the lasting pain of the victims, although with each meeting with them Benedict's empathy has grown - more evidence that a practising Pope needs to spend time out of the office and among the people.

More than 110 years after the death of Friedrich Nietzsche, who declared God was dead - and in the same year that physicist Stephen Hawking declared that God was irrelevant in the creation of the universe - Pope and church have to confront the question of their relevance and role in a secular world. The adoring crowds in Britain suggest that the longing for God refuses to die in spite of the best efforts of the brightest scientists and freethinkers to commit deicide. The British prime minister was correct in saying that Benedict and Christian teaching offer a challenge to secular society - to see that a fulfilled life is not about how rich, powerful or famous you can become.

If he took time to talk to the crowds on the British streets, Benedict would have found divergences from some of the things he holds dear. On sexual mores, such as birth control and sex before marriage, most Western Catholics disagree with the Pope, although most would accept Catholic teaching about the central role of marriage and children. On other burning issues, such as married priests, female priests and the treatment of homosexuals, there is more ambivalence, but most practising Catholics are unhappy at the way the church treats women.

Many in the church would insist that they are not 'cafeteria Catholics' picking and choosing from the menu of faith, but are loyal to Catholic teaching - and see their faith and belief in God as central to their lives. One challenge to Benedict is whether he is willing to engage such Catholics.

Kevin Rafferty was editor of The Universe, the British Catholic newspaper