A Tale Of Two Popes

So…Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II are now Saints.
Congratulations. (Is it protocol to congratulate Saints?).
The older I get the more nostalgic I get. I can remember the Manchester United FA Cup Final line up from 1958. I dont remember last nights team.
So that dark winter night in the 1950s. There were only two kids on the street…me (6) and a much older boy (he must have been 9 years old).
I dont think I ever played with him before or since…but he left Belfast and became a very famous international footballer. It sticks in my mind.
It was already far too late for me to be outside.
My mother called me in. She had just heard the news on the radio…there was a new Pope and his name was “John” (a name which may or may not have amused Mrs FitzjamesHorse).
So in a way Pope John was the Pope of my primary school years.
Famously…or notoriously…Pope John was the Pope who “opened the windows”. His chosen name “John” was a signal…nobody had been called “John” in centuries…in part because it was an uncomfortable reminder of Middle Ages and “Popes and Anti-Popes”.
In sharp contrast to Pope Pius XII ( branded unfairly I think as “Hitlers Pope”) diminutive Cardinal Roncalli was known to have smuggled Jewish families from Turkey. He was also a Man of the People and slightly too eccentric to be taken seriously…until he started opening those windows.
Ooops the Cardinals had chosen the wrong man.
And GOD had got it right.
I dont suppose all the stories about him are true.
Like the story when he was dressed in gardening clothes and mistaken for a Vatican worker by the handyman who was changing a light bulb.
Looking around at the various Vatican prelates and priests, the handyman speculated how many people actually worked in the Vatican. “About half of them” said the Gardener.

The Altar Boy Years. 1961-1963. Mass might have been in Latin…but the Vatican Council was already in full swing and “English” and facing the congregation would be introduced.
And a greater involvement for lay people.
This was just the kinda thing my father loved.
Already a church activist, he threw himself into “Patrician Meetings”… now a curiousity but an occasion once a month when maybe fifteen or twenty (mostly) men would gather in the church hall to discuss the great issues of the day…like the Immaculate Conception.
My father loved them so much that once a month was never enough and he would go to the meetings in the neighbouring parishes on the Falls Road. I used to go with him. “Joseph and Jesus in the Temple” (Mrs FJH my mother….thought it was all amusingly Biblical).
Fifty years later, its hard to understand people like my father (the Pioneer Total Abstinence Man), Uncle Jackie (the Confraternity Man), Uncle Charlie (the Rosary Man), Alex (the Catholic Red who fought against Franco in Spain), Paddy (the Legion of Mary Man) and Mr O’Connor with the red St Vincent de Paul box after Sunday Mass)…middle aged men who can only be understood as the Old Decency of Falls Road Men…we will never see their like again. A civilisation that has “gone with the wind”.

Of course Pope John XXIII was always intended to be an interim Pope. And he died before he actually saw his reforms take root. The civil servant-diplomat, Pope Paul VI who succeeded the pastoral John…had the difficult job of simultaneously implementing reform and rolling back the atmosphere that the traditionalists in the Curia found difficult.
And the story of the late 1960s is one of Reform.
And the story of the 1970s is one of two Churches, traditionalist wing clinging to the old ways and a charismatic church embracing the New.
In 1976, I brought my father to Old Trafford in Manchester.
It turned out that the Church recommended to us by the hotel was one of the last bastions of traditional Catholicism in the City.
My father inevitably got involved in what he thought was a civilised “Patrician” discussion about the nuances of Catholicism…but he was told that he would roast in Hell alongside The Anti-Pope John XXIII.
An odd day.

Of course, it was increasingly obvious that Pope Paul VI was ailing and presiding over a divided Church. Despite the teaching on “Birth Control”, Catholic couples were voting with their feet…so to speak.
So in 1978, twenty years after the election of Pope John XXIII, a new Pope was elected.
The Smiling Pope…John Paul I…lasted only a few weeks….before dying in his sleep or being murdered by the Mafia…the unlikely conspiracy.
But somehow the election of the younger Polish Pope John Paul II pleased liberals even more.
He was young (a good sign surely)
He was Polish (surely a departure from the tradition of Italians).
He was pastoral and not Curia.
He was Republican and would not be crowned.
All good stuff.
So that when I sat from dawn to early evening on a cold wet hillside at Knock in County Mayo…in September 1979, hungry because I was cut off from my travelling companions….I was actually enthusiastic about Pope John Paul II. At the same time in Galway, the young woman who I had yet to meet was equally enthusiastic about him.
When the Polish Pope told the young people of Ireland that he loved them, she happily joined in the spontaneous chant “We Love the Pope!”
Indeed we were so enthused that less than three years later, the future Mrs FJH wrote to the Pope and asked him to marry us.
You think Im joking? No Im not.
We got a very nice letter from the Papal Nuncio in Dublin telling us that Pope John Paul II wished us well but would not be able to perform the ceremony.

How did we all get so disenchanted with the Polish Pope.
The signs were there and we ignored them.
Did he end the Cold War?
The 1940s student and 1970s Bishop knew how to deal with Totalitarianism.
How many Divisions has the Pope?
Just the Papal Guard but it was a quirky piece of historical coincidence that a Polish Pope sat in the Vatican, while his countrymen occupied the Gdansk Shipyards.
And yet liberals were wrong to think that a Polish Pope would be liberal in a doctrinal sense.
We were confounded.
Of course “doctrinal matters” are just that…Doctrinal.
But perhaps liberals have really more concern with issues like Married Clergy or Women Clergy.
The Anglican Church supporting Women Priests…pushed the highly “Christian Thatcherites” like John Selwyn Gummer and Anne Widdicombe into the same pews as decent liberal Catholics. For some the thought of Widdicombe offering them “a sign of peace” chased many outside the Church.
The Catholic Church becoming a refuge for Anglican dissidents and a safe haven for paedophile priests will unfortunately be the public legacy of Pope John Paul II.
Politically, it would have been impossible to have canonised the liberal Pope John XXIII without the balance of canonising the conservative Pope John Paul II.

Canonisation is always “political”. Joan of Arc…France needed a saint in the 1920s.
Thomas More…a saint for England in the 1930s. Oliver Plunkett a saint for Ireland in the 1970s.
All martyrs.
But all “national” martyrs at least as much as “Catholic” martyrs.
And was not Thomas Cranmer a victim for his Protestant faith? hardly going to be canonised by the Catholic Church. Nor is any martyr-victim of the Spanish Inquisition going to be canonised.
But it is not just “politics”.
It is the Public Life and the Private Life.
I may not like the ambiguity of the role of Pope Pius XII in World War Two but I know nothing of his private life which may have been exemplary. Yet he would be much too controversial to canonise.
Likewise I smile at Pope John XXIII. Yet I know nothing of his private life. But hard to ignore the popularity of his sainthood.
And I might well think that Pope John Paul II was a near disaster and his legacy was the absolute disaster of Pope Benedict XVI, the German Pope.
In fairness to Pope Benedict, he realised that he was a disaster and his greatest achievement was resigning.
The problem that liberal Catholics have with their Church is that at moves at the speed of a glacier.
But sooner or later, everything gets sorted out.
So…the Reformation was not such a bad idea after all.
And the French Revolution was also a good idea.
And Italian Unification and the dissolution of the Papal States.
And Feminism…good idea.

And of course its only a matter of time before issues like Women Priests, Married Priests, Gay Priests are resolved.
And while liberals are usually impatient for change, I cant help feeling that theres a certain indecent haste about the canonisation of Pope John Paul II less than a decade after he died. And arguably five decades is too soon in the case of Pope John XXIII.
The dual canonisation is just too expedient.

So really we have THREE Popes whose election pleased liberal opinion in the Catholic Church.
Pope John was not a disappointment.
Pope John Paul WAS a disappointment.
And the third Pope? You dont have to be liberal or even a Catholic to realise that Pope Francis I is a patently decent man.
Argentinian and the third Republican Pope…ensuring no crown will ever be worn again.
Please dont disappoint us.

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3 Responses to A Tale Of Two Popes

  1. Croiteir (@Croiteir) says:

    O please God do disappoint you, the Popes since John XX111 has been in decline as they move away from Catholicism to a more narcissistic Church to match western society has not been good for the Church or its people. We can only hope that God intervenes and restores His Church, I sincerely believe that Archbishop Lefebvre will be viewed as a modern Athanasius.

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