The View: Political hopes are not the only kind

The View: Political hopes are not the only kind
John Waters


By any normal intuitive or rational criteria, I think you would have to observe that the prospect of a papal visit to coincide with the International Eucharistic Congress in June is, at this stage, unlikely. The question is: should we be thinking about such a matter on the basis of normal intuitive or rational criteria?

A fortnight ago, speaking on RTÉ radio, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin appeared to suggest that he has been advising Pope Benedict that he should not come to Ireland while ”many of these issues of our past” remain to be addressed.

”Short-circuiting” the renewal process, Archbishop Martin said on the Marian Finucane Show, ”probably wouldn’t bring the fruits that a papal visit would bring. I’m not sure that we are at that stage yet”.

A few days later, however, Cardinal Seán Brady appeared to dissent from this view — indeed to imply that there remained a prospect of a visit even at this late stage.

”My hope is that the Pope will come,” he said. ”I was listening to Archbishop Martin at the weekend about whether the moment is right or not. My hope is that the moment would be right,” he told this newspaper.

There is something deeply intriguing about that sentence: ”My hope is that the moment would be right.”

On the one hand, it might well be interpreted as offering a challenge to something in the Archbishop of Dublin’s characterisation of the situation; on the other, it seems to do no more than express a casual personal aspiration.

Beneath the lightness of the tone, I detected a gentle emphasis in the cardinal’s intervention that seemed to draw attention to a wholly different way of looking at things.

And indeed, should not something wholly different be at the heart of such deliberations? What I mean by this is: shouldn’t the criteria by which we consider such a vital question include some possibility for the intervention of the mysterious source of our existence, which is the very basis of Christian faith?

In this sense, the dissonance between the respective observations of the archbishop and the cardinal may do more than suggest different perceptions and interpretations of various signs emanating from the Vatican.

Something else is visible. What Archbishop Martin was articulating was the political context of a putative papal visit, interpreted according to circumstances to be judged in the context of a media-hosted discussion concerning the current position of the Irish Church in public attitudes.

Cardinal Brady’s tone, however, emphasised a more personal imperative — not merely ‘personal’ to himself, but ‘personal’ to the heart of any and every human being who might be moved by a desire on this matter.

”My hope is that the moment would be right.” What I think I am trying to draw attention to in this sentence is that it reads more like a prayer than a political statement. For Christians, hope can never be reduced to a mere political concept.

It has long intrigued me that Church leaders in Ireland and elsewhere often seem to fall into the ‘secular’ way of seeing and stating things — sometimes even while they are in the process of decrying the ‘secular’ condition.

Thus, in their public interventions, they sometimes seem to leave out of their analysis and deliberations any possibility for the exceptionality which their calling in a broader sense bears witness to.

It is as though, speaking to a culture which they intuit to be self-evidently agnostic — to put it no stronger — they perhaps unconsciously seek to maintain a harmony with the cultural conditions they intuit from the immediate context in which they find themselves.

Thus, in a radio studio surrounded by a bunch of sceptics and secularists, they become politicians, no longer bearing witness to the single most extraordinary in the history of the world ever — but, in the same manner as spokespeople for a political organisation, delivering interpretations and predictions based on the ”best available information at this point in time”.

Without sparking any conscious awareness, this inevitably jars with the subconscious of the listening Christian.

Indeed, I would say that this syndrome contributes more than somewhat to the growing sense of an imposed, insurmountable division between believing in Christianity and operating within the reductionist forms of reason that govern our thoughts and thinking processes in relation to the political aspects of our public world.

If our Church leaders fall into thinking about the workings of Christianity as subject only to the same kinds of forces that apply to politics, then how can we continue to believe that the Son of Man decided to intervene in human history and walk in the dust of the world?

I am probably reading too much into it, but this is what I see in that rather glancing difference of opinion between Archbishop Martin and Cardinal Brady.

One was speaking to a political context; the other was addressing the total spectrum of possibility implied by the Incarnation.

For what it is worth, I believe the Pope should come. I believe the time is right.

I believe, even looking at things in the dimmest political light, that there are many shifts occurring which indicate that what is stated and restated in the public discussion may no longer be in tune with the reality.

If I was advising the Holy Father, and he was to ask me to cite the political factors in favour of a visit, I would mention two factors.

Firstly, I would point to what on the surface appears to be the gradual turnaround in public thinking as reflected in the controversy about the closure of the Vatican embassy.

Now, the Government begins to see that what is roared out at the centre of the public square is not necessarily representative of what is harboured in the heart of an expectant people.

I would also refer to the outcome of a recent Liveline poll on the very subject of whether or not Pope Benedict should come.

I do not believe that I am alone among Irish Catholics in spending those 15 minutes or so in advance of the announcement of the results of last week’s Liveline poll in a state of some foreboding concerning what was about to be revealed.

I voted once (only once, I stress, in deference, perhaps, to the thinking I seek to advocate here). But in truth I was not hopeful. I told myself that the people who listen to Liveline would in all probability be more disposed than the general population to harbouring hostility towards the Pope.

I feared that those most likely to support a visit might not be the most disposed to or adept at texting radio programmes. And so on. And yet, the result when it arrived indicated that 53 per cent of listeners believed the Pope should come.

This was unexpected, at least by me, which should at the least remind me of the limits of my own faith and hoping.

We know from his excursions elsewhere that extraordinary things happen wherever this Pope chooses to go. Surely the point of a visit is to enable this to happen, not to wait until we are certain that all the ducks are carefully lined up and we are certain that nothing can possibly go wrong?

I am with Cardinal Brady: I too hope the moment may be right.