There was a time when it would not have been uncommon to walk into an Irish Catholic home and see two portraits hung above a mantelpiece held in equal esteem: Pope John XXIII and US President John F. Kennedy.
After the austere Pope Pius XII, ‘Good Pope John’ as he quickly became known, was like a breath of fresh air shining through the post-war haze. Equally President Kennedy, young, handsome, a man of the modern world captured for many the optimistic spirit of the 1960s.
Neither man was in office for very long, adding to the esteem in which they were held. John died in June 1963 after less than five years as Pope, President Kennedy was assassinated just five months later half-way through his term in office.
Both men, the conventional wisdom goes, would have achieved much more and been even-greater beacons of progress had they lived a little bit longer. Dying with your boots on is a sure way to live on in the public imagination.
John XIII’s greatest achievement was to summon the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) as a way to bring the Church more into line with the modern world. John died after just one session of the council and it was left to his predecessor Paul VI to steer a via media between those who were fiercely resistant to any change and those who felt the Catholic Church would soon resemble one of the mainstream Protestant denominations.
Vatican II was an extraordinary gift to the Catholic Church. Arguably the failure of the Church in Ireland to embrace and authentically understand the Council has been at the root of many of the crises that has faced Catholicism on this island ever since.
John XXIII was without doubt a saintly man, a fact that will be celebrated next year when he is canonised on the same day as Pope John Paul II. However, the complexity of his character and his ecclesiastical approach is done a disservice by the all-too-human desire to create caricatures and simplistic narratives, often to fit with one’s own particular views or opinions.
Vatican II called the Church to a more modern approach to the world: it sought to answer the question of how the timeless message of the Gospel can be presented in a way that is relevant to new generations. The Council was about a new way of being the Church: more collegial and more participatory. The Council is sometimes invoked as a Magna Carta for all kinds of reforms within the Church: supporters of married clergy look to the council for inspiration; those who want women to be ordained priests also often cite Vatican II as part of their argument. Not that the council had anything to say about either matter: but this is where the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ comes in. The ‘spirit of Vatican II’ too often refers to a way of endorsing one’s own particular vision of reform invoking the council as a way of trying to make those who disagree think they are on the wrong side of history.
There are those within the Church who are undoubtedly disappointed because the Church has not become what they wanted it to become. They tend to blame John Paul II and Benedict XVI for this almost as if there was some hidden, almost gnostic, message from Vatican II that both men supressed. They rarely, if ever, cite the actual teaching of Vatican II preferring instead to invoke the vague ‘spirit’.
It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out with Pope Francis. The Argentine Pontiff is lucky in that he has crossed an important hurdle: he is loved by the media. The proliferation of media in the modern world more-or-less guarantees that if a world leader is embraced by the media, the public adulation will follow. There is no doubt that Pope Francis is a man filled with humility. It’s a quality that his predecessor Benedict XVI possessed in spades too, but that didn’t fit into the prevailing narrative of ‘God’s Rottweiler’ or the ‘Panzer-Kardinal’.
There is absolutely no doubt that Pope Francis moves with ease among people in a way that Benedict XVI never did. His demeanour at the weekly general audiences is more reminiscent of Pope John Paul II in his heyday. Francis draws energy from people in a way that large gatherings seemed to drain Benedict. However, it’s also true that the media found gestures by Benedict tedious in a way that they would’ve found endearing from Pope Francis. Benedict was quite a good sport, trying on hats that were presented to him and speaking to a pilgrims’ relative on a mobile phone at a general audience. But those acts just didn’t fit the image of Benedict that had been adopted by many commentators even before his election.
It can also be seen in the way that Pope Francis is selectively reported. Aboard the papal plane back from Brazil he gave a wide-ranging interview in which he asserted the Church’s traditional view on women’s ordination insisting that “the door is closed”. He appropriately called for a compassionate attitude to gay people (“who am I to judge?”) before directing reporters to the catechism to read the Church’s teaching on the issue. Yet, his ‘who am I to judge?’ was really the only comment reported while his stance on women’s ordination was largely ignored because it doesn’t suit the lazy narrative of Francis as a bit of a renegade.
Pope Francis’ papacy has already created great energy and enthusiasm, particularly his lively concern for the poor and call for Catholics to step outside of themselves and become less self-referencing. Here’s a prediction, though: Francis will make much-needed changes in the Church’s governance to breathe life into the collaborative vision of Vatican II. This will effect a massive shift in ecclesiastical culture. On the thorny issues of women’s ordination, priestly celibacy and issues around human sexuality there’ll be no change. The response? Those who were hoping for change will blame ‘the Vatican’, the Pope’s ‘handlers’. “If it was up to Francis he’d change everything,” the narrative will go. We may even have a ‘spirit of Pope Francis’ based not on what the Pontiff actually says, but what he ‘might’ say if he was free.