On the day of writing this, April 19th, I am remembering that it was on this day back in 2005 that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Benedict XVI. I remember it well. There were about fifty of us seminarians gathered around a television in Maynooth, eagerly awaiting the news of the new Pope who would lead the Church after the long papacy of John Paul II. As it dawned on our group, who had been actually elected, eighty per cent were on their feet in jubilation, whilst the remaining twenty per cent or less, let out a collective groan. For some, this was the dawning of a new stability, strong clear decisive leadership, whilst others feared rigidity and a lack of compassion leading to further haemorrhaging of church membership. For my part I knew I would respect, adhere to, and defend the new Pope, but on that spring day in 2005, I found myself wondering would I actually like him. Of course I also wondered what he would be like as the new leader of the Church.
‘From what Chloe’s people have been telling me, my dear brothers,it is clear that there are serious differences among you. What I mean are all these slogans that you have, like: ‘ I am for Paul’, ‘ I am for Apollos’, ‘ I am for Cephas’, ‘ I am for Christ’. Has Christ been parcelled out?’ 1 Cor 1: 12
Have you ever found yourself talking or thinking like that? John Paul was charming. Paul VI looked a bit severe. Benedict had dark eyes, and so on. As if we could sum up any person, never mind the Pope, in a word. We sometimes go further and slap a label on an entire pontificate: conservative, liberal, populist, hard-line and so on. At times we seem to love labels. Of course labels are handy. Unfortunately they are also lazy. Perhaps labels should be kept for folders, or clothes. They rarely work for people. When we paste a label on a person we box them, restrict them and dilute them. We also let ourselves down. In truth we are more sophisticated than our just reaching for a label shows.
When I was born on the Falls Rd, in West Belfast, John XXIII was on the Chair of Peter. Large and ambling, he was from peasant background, and though he was seen as a caretaker Pope, he, in fact, revolutionised the Church. He was often referred to as good Pope John. One of my earliest memories is being held up to kiss two ornamental plates in our tiny little scullery. On one plate was JFK and Jackie, and on the other was Roncalli, John XXIII. Paul VI appeared to me, as aloof. I now know he was courageous and steady. He was serious and disciplined. The first Pope I loved though, was John Paul II, even though I will never forget the smile of Albino Luciani, John Paul I. Myself and a few others were on the roof of the stand in the Galway racecourse. A few of the Gardai were trying to cajole us down but to no avail, as we explained that we had come from West Belfast and that the Pope was telling us he loved us, so we were staying put. I am fairly sure he was waving at me, from the helicopter that morning in Galway. In a different Ireland. I was broken hearted when he died. How he suffered. Initially I found it difficult to accept Benedict, maybe I was influenced by trashy headlines that labelled him God’s Rottweiler. I learned to love him though and was so proud, when even non-Christians, acknowledged him to be one of the greatest intellectuals alive. I love him still. What humility, what graciousness he has displayed.
And now my friends to Francis. What are we to say about this Pope of ours? He certainly is the most talked about man on the planet. He even manages to dominate social media. I am amazed to hear all sorts of people, even those within the church, even in the catholic media, criticise him. Once again they revert to labels. They express reservation.
Of course on a weekly basis he gently defies their attempts to define him. He is richer than this. His beautiful disarming smile is just the beginning of him, as a brave revolutionary for Christ. Rejecting pomp and ceremony he regularly reminds us of the sacredness of the ordinary. Each day he challenges us to step out of the comfort of the black and white. In truly Christ-like fashion he nudges us towards the shadowlands, where God’s holy breath, the Holy Spirit hovers, dances. It is here that he whispers lovingly to us that the name of God is Mercy.
Do you believe that the choice of this Pope is not just the choice of men, holy and not so holy, but in a very profound and sacred way the choice of God himself? I do. Even though I could not always see it, it was the Holy Spirit who chose John, Paul, both John Pauls and Benedict. In Francis, the Lord has excelled himself. In the divine choice of Francis we see again the wisdom of God, not to mention, his generosity and compassion for each one of us. JMCD 19.4.16