Is it just me, or did response to the recent resignation of Pope Benedict XVI amount to much more than a worldwide ‘meh’? Sure, there were front page stories the following day, but their content seemed dictated by protocol—it was as if this made the news because it should be the news, rather than exciting or remarkable news in and of itself.
Perhaps it was inevitable, given the steady unfolding of age-old scandals in the Catholic Church in Ireland and elsewhere, and publications of reports from independent investigations into these wrongdoings, since Benedict’s election in 2005. Although not directly implicated in any of these scandals, there seemed to be a ‘least said soonest mended’ political approach by the Pontiff, and the Vatican, to these harrowing issues that was never going to endear the head of the Church to the international community.
And perhaps too Benedict was simply lacking in the charisma that helps a public figure to command mass respect among followers, and even admiration among detractors, no matter how controversial their views, opinions or conduct may be.
The contrast with the global reaction to the death of Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was striking. John Paul was widely regarded as the most right-wing Pontiff for generations, a man who ran the Vatican with an iron hand, who made no bones about his traditional views on homosexuality, clerical celibacy, and the role of women in the Church. And yet, compared with Benedict, John Paul II had an iconic status to his admirers and detractors alike.
I can recall working as a reporter in the Limerick Leader at the time of John Paul II’s death in April 2005, and how, even as a non-Catholic, I was moved by his passing, to the point of filing a story on my childhood memories about the Pope’s historic visit to Ireland in 1979.
While I remain unmoved by the Vatican’s minimalist approach to the revelations, and believe that John Paul and Benedict truly missed an opportunity to play a leading role in healing the damage done to their Church by wrong-doers and those who harboured them, I stand over what I wrote about John Paul here, and the message of peace and love he brought to communities divided by religious and tribal distrust and even hatred.
‘A single sentence among the hate and I knew who had my vote’
From the Limerick Leader, Saturday, April 16, 2005
BEFORE 1978, the Pope was a mythical figure to me. I had no idea the Pope was even a man. As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, “Pope”, for me, was merely a word, and one with utterly negative connotations.
It was a word that I first saw on graffiti slogans. “No Pope Here” was a typical one. I can remember it painted in white letters on a wall along the roadside near the housing estate where I lived. “Pope”, whoever he or it was, apparently wasn’t welcome in our school toilets either, someone having crudely scratched “No Pope Here” with the point of a compass into the partition wall of one of the cubicles.
The first time I became aware the Pope was “the” Pope, rather than an abstract concept, was when I saw a particularly nasty slogan, scrawled in permanent marker on a fence near the school I attended: “Fuck the Pope”.
In 1970s and 1980s Northern Ireland, there was little opportunity for an eight-year-old non-Catholic to find out anything about the Pope. among Protestant friends, the Pope was a Fenian, a Taig, and therefore not a subject for discussion. And among Catholic friends, there was a reticence that ensured few if any references to the Pope in conversation.
However, thanks to my parents, I didn’t join in the graffiti writing, or the twisted ceremony of burning an effigy of the Pope on the bonfires lit on the eve of July 12th every year.
My parents told me that the Pope was the head of the Catholic Church, and I was not to be writing graffiti or making life difficult for the few Catholic neighbours we had on the estate. And that was that.
But then, the Pope himself intervened, in a single utterance that I’ve never forgotten. One day in 1978, the television told us there was a new Pope, and showed pictures of white smoke wafting from a tall chimney in a place I’d never heard of called The Vatican.
The following year, Pope John Paul II visited Ireland. His itinerary didn’t include the North, but my parents, my sister and me sat and watched the whole shebang on television. We saw the Pope in all the places he visited, including Limerick, and we also watched his farewell to Ireland at Shannon Airport.
The one crystal clear memory I have of the actual visit is not the famous “Young people of Ireland, I love you…” speech, but rather the simple declaration, “Let no Irish Protestant think that the Pope is a danger, an enemy or a threat.”
It was like a depth charge. Balancing this statement from a man who spoke of little else except peace and love, against those “Fuck The Pope” slogans, I knew who had my vote. He even had a yoke called the Pope-Mobile for getting around, and flew from place to place in a helicopter, pure superhero stuff for a nine-year-old kid.
I now live in Limerick, far from the place of my birth, and in the past few days, it has occurred to me that Pope John Paul II, with his simple reaching out to a community who hated him, helped to ensure that I wouldn’t go down the same road travelled by many of the kids who were the same age as me.
Some of them joined or supported paramilitary groups, and as the Troubles simmered and boiled throughout the 1980s, others engaged in outright intimidation of their Catholic neighbours. It’s almost certain that these were the same kids who scraped those messages about the Pope on walls and fences all those years ago.
I know these are simple childhood memories. The Pope had his critics. He was a conservative, tough man who ruled his own Church with an iron hand. But for me, he’ll always be a holy man who reached out to others, simply and directly exposing irrational hatred for what it is, in a single sentence. [ENDS]