Shallow Comparisons and the Papal Visit

Joanna Bogle FAITH Magazine May-June 2010

Watch for the new trend: I predict that, as the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain draws nearer, the line of attack will be to contrast this "harsh, overbearing" Pope with the "gentle, warm-hearted" John Paul II. This from media commentators who spent much of JPII's reign telling everyone about the harsh and overbearing Pole.

I remember well how, especially in the latter years of John Paul's reign, it became fashionable to suggest that

(a) he had become bitter and soured through a failure to communicate his message, especially on sexual ethics,

(b) he was surrounded by nutcases and/or was being driven by factions dominated by Opus Dei and other powerful "right-wing lobbyists", and (c) that, partly through his physical limitations, he had reverted to a safety-zone of Polish paranoia and traditional devotions bordering on superstition. Remember the rumour that he was going to announce - infallibly - that Mary was present along with Christ in the Eucharist?

Then we got Benedict XVI, and after warning us that he was going to be narrow-minded and nasty, the media discovered that he was a gentle academic with a large mind and large vision, and a striking ability to communicate large ideas. So he was given a honeymoon period, if only out of media bafflement. From this emerged various myths, chief of which was that John Paul II had been "obsessed with sexual morality" while Benedict would, by implication, take a more tolerant approach. Remember the rumour that he was going to "allow the use of condoms in order to prevent transmission of the AIDS virus"?

And now, well, the truth has emerged. Two men, both committed to a lifetime of service to God, each in turn called to serve as successor of St Peter, and each extraordinarily capable of serving in that office and blessed with remarkable gifts. Neither of them particularly harsh or overbearing, both men of humour, wisdom and mercy, both of outstanding intellect. And both committed to preaching the truths of the faith in and out of season.

And so when the Papal visit in 2010 was formally announced, it coincided with a Papal discourse to the English bishops which touched on the injustices of government plans to impose restrictive laws on churches - and there was a media outcry. Papal aggression! The Pope had expressed support for the English Bishops in their concerns about the planned law, and noted that "the effect of some of the legislation... has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed." (Catholic commentators also noted, somewhat gleefully, that the Pope also called upon the bishops to take their own task alot more seriously, presenting "the full saving message of Christ" and ensuring that the Church speaks "with a united voice".)

How dare a Pope speak out in defence of the Church! The National Secular Society announced itself outraged. And, given the increasingly aggressive atheism that has been made fashionable over recent years, the mood felt distinctly nasty. The new take was established: this Pope is a nasty aggressive German, so different from the dear gentle old Polish chap who only preached peace and love...

And meanwhile some Catholics are unwittingly joining in with the ah-but-these-two-Popes-are-different line. For a start, some ultra-traditionalists simply loathe John Paul, are angry about his progress towards beatification, and seize every possible moment to denigrate him. It is in their interests to boost Pope Benedict as the radical alternative, and this they are currently seeking to do.

They have problems with this, and are well aware of them, but hope to clear thought by shrill pronouncements. Thus they denounced John Paul's visit to a synagogue - but then found they were embarrassed by Pope Benedict's high-profile visit, the warmth of his reception, and the profound message that he brought, which took further - and was intended to - the tentative beginnings in Christian-Jewish dialogue which John Paul had initiated. It has become clear that Benedict XVI sees a theological deepening of this dialogue. His speech was extremely well received -interrupted several times by prolonged applause - not only because he emphasised solidarity with the Jewish people and a recognition of their suffering in recent history, but because he also emphasised the profound importance of thebond between the Jewish people and God, the value of the Jewish Scriptures, and the significance of this for the Church and for all time.

Another standard attack on Pope John Paul was to denounce his gestures of respect towards Islam - but then Pope Benedict was filmed praying in a mosque. Then there was the suggestion that John Paul II was just an actor, a flamboyant speaker, even a show-off - and then revelations emerged of his personal penances and austerities, the private spiritual life which inspired his extraordinary evangelical zeal.

The reality is that these two Popes have been unusually close in their approach to many central issues of our time - and this is unsurprising because the present Pope was the chief theological adviser to the previous one, and the two were intellectually and spiritually close. In his first words to the great crowd in St Peter's Square after his election, Pope Benedict spoke of "the great John Paul" and the next day, addressing the cardinals, he said, rather movingly, "I seem to feel his strong hand holding mine. I feel I can see his smiling eyes and hear his words, at this moment particularly directed at me: 'Be Not Afraid.'"

Both men were brought up with traditions of deep family piety. In John Paul's case this sustained him through the loss of his mother and a beloved older brother. His descriptions of seeing his father deep in prayer are a glimpse into an affectionate father-son bond which clearly forged his own manhood. Thus for a while we had some commentators who liked to contrast John Paul "the emotional" with Benedict "the intellectual", the former relying on old-fashioned, simple devotions while the latter had a more sophisticated approach. Then we saw film of Benedict on holiday, quietly saying the Rosary with his companions on a country walk, and stopping to visit a local shrine (rather an endearing picture of him on tiptoe, peering in at a window).

In studying the lives and achievements of these two men, I think that future historians will very often link them together, and not merely because their lives overlapped and the one succeeded the other to the Papacy. They are both men of a distinct era - one from the East, one from the West, of Europe in a century which saw the two halves divided as never before and also coming together again. They were both profoundly influenced by their backgrounds, each with a strong sense of place - John Paul so very Polish, Benedict deeply Bavarian. Both are men of large vision - the Tatra Mountains and the Bavarian alps somehow lifting their eyes to the heights, and both lovers of learning, of language, of God's glory in nature and his gifts to men in music and the arts.

"Given the increasingly aggressive atheism, the mood felt distinctly nasty"

Differences? In style, of course, although Benedict's ability to communicate with the young seems to be pretty good judging from two World Youth Days and innumerable gatherings at Rome, Rimini and elsewhere. In priorities - well, clearly Benedict is making good liturgy one of his, while John Paul seemed to concentrate more on communicating the message by preaching. But even here it is difficult to draw strict lines. Pope Benedict has indicated clearly that he believes we should receive Communion with great reverence, preferably kneeling - but no more powerful message about that could be given than the sight of John Paul, frail and in obvious pain in his illness and old age, struggling out of his chair and on to his knees to receive his Saviour. Ecumenism? Benedict's invitation toAnglicans is a well-timed and large initiative that will gather long-term graces and significance, and is the concrete result of Anglicanism's own path in recent decades - it is difficult to imagine John Paul disapproving.

In the end, each time there is a good man on the throne of St Peter, a good contribution is made through God's providence. One last, extraordinary, piece of information to fit into the complex jigsaw. One of the more controversial acts of Pope Benedict's reign so far was to open the way for the beatification of Pope Pius XII. Now, there are those who would doubtless like to suggest that "good old John

Paul II" would not have sought to honour this wartime Pope, whose photographic image seems so austere and who struggled to do what was right at a time when the Polish nation was enduring huge suffering and the world was at war. But...a recent news story featured a possible miracle that might be used for Pius' beatification. A woman had been praying to John Paul for his intercession in a difficult case of illness. He appeared to her in a dream and urged her to pray to "a thin-looking priest". She did not recognise the latter until she saw a picture of Pius XII: "That's him!" Her prayers were answered. If the story is true, it binds together two holy Popes whom the popular news media might have thought to be at variance.

As we cheer St Peter's successor on his visit to Britain later this year, we will probably be uncomfortably aware that there will be plenty of efforts to wreck the trip, to make tensions and divisions appear among Christ's flock, to spoil what could be a joyous and uplifting event, and to block any spiritual benefits which might flow. To prevent any such efforts succeeding, we need plenty of prayers. Mine will include invoking the aid from Heaven of John Paul II and not a few of his predecessors. Don't be afraid to do the same.

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