Thursday, March 14, 2013

Habemus Papam!

Dominus conservet eum, et vivificet eum, 
et beatum faciat eum in terra, 
et non tradat eum in animam inimicorum eius.

I was still at school when Pope John Paul II was elected but I can remember clearly the excitement. For the media - and for my Polish friends - it was the excitement of novelty, that this man "from a far country" had become the first non-Italian, a Pole!, to take up that office in hundreds of years. For others it was the excitement of what this particular individual would mean for the future of the Church. A few months previously an article bearing the title "The Runaway Church - can it be caught?" was published in The Times by its Religious Affairs Correspondent. It concluded, of course, that Catholic doctrine, piety and practice had changed so much since the Council that she had now developed her own momentum for change which no Pope could halt. 

These were the days of the "hermeneutic of discontinuity" which equated everything pre-conciliar as "bad" and anything post-conciliar as "good". Pretty soon, of course, we discovered that with the election of John Paul II a Rock once again sat on the Chair of Peter. I was at university for the first few years of his Pontificate and then went to seminary where the authorities were still trying to come to terms that with this new Pope things had indeed changed. They were crazy days. I remember two of us defending the practice of regular Confession and attracting the anger of those who thought us reactionary. A few weeks later Reconciliatio et Poenitentia was published justifying every point we had defended. It was as if, block by block, John Paul II was rebuilding the Church, putting it back together.

If John Paul rebuilt, perhaps we might say that during the Pontificate of Benedict XVI we were blessed with a man who knew how to put the finishing touches, to beautify, and to bring out treasures both old and new. With Pope John Paul we had to be there in the quarry with him as he worked to hew out the blocks that were needed and to transport them to the place where they were to go. With Benedict we were invited into the finished rooms, to sit with him and allow him to show us where this piece came from, or why that colour was chosen. He let us sit at his feet while he played a wonderful instrument and drew us into the beauty of its melodies and harmonies. He revealed you a face of the Church we had not seen before. We will never forget what we learned from him. It has influenced the people we have become and the future we will construct.

So what of Pope Francis? Who know what his pontificate will bring? Personally I think he will remind us that the labour of his two predecessors, the Church, was not an end in itself. It exists to put us in contact with Christ. Knowing about Christ isn't enough. We are called to know Christ. In other words, he will complete the project, which began with the second Vatican Council and was continued through Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict, of presenting Christ's face to the world. We will be reminded that the Church is not a museum for those interested in antiquity to come to get a buzz. It is not some faded European aristocracy that exists more in adolescent imagination than in reality. It is a place of encounter with Christ, of conversion, and of love of God and neighbour that has to give birth to deeds and not sweet words. I am struck by how St Francis of Assisi won so many followers by the simplicity of his life and I am not surprised to have already received an email with the news that one young man watching the appearance of the new Pope on the balcony last night has already asked to become a Catholic!

Should we expect a discontinuity with the past? Not at all! When Pope John Paul II went to Bolivia the media focused on images of the poor miner who presented him with a miner's helmet and called him "Comrade John Paul". It didn't linger to to show peasant woman who followed and who handed him an empty food bowl. She said, "Holy Father, this bowl is empty because we have no food. But it is also full because we have our faith and our love". It is useful to be reminded that we are all called to that relationship with Christ lived out in faith and love.

God bless Pope Francis!

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