In the final volume of his masterly trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, writes of how the replies of Jesus to Pilate in his interrogation “must have seemed like madness to the Roman judge. And yet he could not shake off the mysterious impression left by this man, so different from those he had met before who had resisted Roman domination and fought for the restoration of the kingdom of Israel.”
It is difficult not to see similar bewilderment lurking in the hearts and minds of the thousands of media functionaries who were milling around St. Peter’s basilica and the Vatican since that historic day, 11 of February, 2013. In the six or seven weeks since then the world’s media vainly – for the most part – tried to grapple with realities which they were fascinated by but which they simply could not comprehend. Just as Pilate was bewildered by the idea that Christ was a king in the sense that he, Pilate, understood kingship, they were looking at a group of men assembling in Rome to elect the ruler of an entity which they only half understood. Essentially they read it all in terms of purely human politics. As a consequence they missed the entire plot.
The New York Times of 11 March gave us what might be a textbook example of how the application of political language takes you only so far in this drama, and how, when you reach a certain point, if you persist with it, it simply leads you into a dead end.
Laurie Goodstein and Elisabetta Povoledo began their “analysis” piece for the Times by telling us that the cardinals who would enter the papal conclave on Tuesday of that week would walk into the Sistine Chapel in a single file. That would be something deceptive, for “beneath the orderly display, they were split into competing line-ups and power blocs that will determine which man among them emerges as pope.”
Cardinal Angelo Scola of Italy was, for example, described by Goodstein and Povoledo, as “a top contender for pope among some in the conclave.” Marlon Brando famously muttered to Rod Steiger, his older brother in On the Waterfront, “I could’a been a contender”, meaning a contender for a boxing title. This was not a boxing match. This was not a title fight, not even a contest in any meaningful sense of the word. This was a meeting in which over a hundred men who have given their lives to the service of Christ and his Church were going to look among themselves for the one whom they deemed, in their hearts and minds, would most faithfully and effectively lead and sustain that Church in the mission which its founder gave them.
Nothing of this understanding, nothing, was evident in the 1,500 or so words penned by Goodstein and Povoledo on that Sunday and filed to the Times. From beginning to end they read the drama – and a papal conclave is high drama, no doubt – unfolding before them as power bloc pitted against power bloc in pursuit of the control of a political and administrative structure serving an end which to them was very ill-understood indeed.
“The main divide”, they said, “pits the cardinals who work in the Vatican, the Romans, against the reformers, the cardinals who want the next pope to tackle what they see as the Vatican’s corruption, inefficiency and reluctance to share power and information with bishops from around the world.” What had all that to do with the billion and more ordinary people who want to follow the teaching of Christ, receive his sacraments daily and weekly and be helped to make their way through this world to a promised eternal life? Serving these people is the sole and ultimate object of this institution and the raison d’etre of those men walking into the Sistine Chapel on the morning of 12 March.
The faithful of the Catholic Church throughout the world, within hours of the white smoke appearing, were at peace once again. Indeed, as the smoke appeared, the cheers from the thousands in the square told us that they were once again in the place they wanted to be and that they knew that God’s ordained instruments had once again chosen a shepherd in his own mould to care for all their needs.
When the secularist world’s reading of the history and the reality of the Catholic Church is not naively political, it is driven by the media’s own very unbalanced and self-created image of the reality of the institution, its problems and its crises in the world today.
The next pontiff, Goodstein and Povoledo said, “must unite an increasingly globalized church paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age (my italics). And among the cardinals, they said, there is no obvious single successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who rattled the church by resigning last month at age 85”. Obvious to whom? The short and decisive conclave showed precisely the contrary. The cardinals, after their days of prayerful conversation and reflection walked into the Sistine Chapel with much more unity of intent and purpose than the watching world imagined.
But who really thinks the Catholic Church is paralysed? No one who looks at the phenomenal growth of the Church in different parts of the world could say it is paralyzed. It may be challenged to keep up with this; it is being challenged by the decline of the faith in the old world – a decline brought about primarily by the growth of materialism, indifference and the lure of hedonism and only very marginally by the weakness its members see in each other.
Of course the lure of hedonism has infected servants of the Church. Of course there has been scandal, but there has always been scandal. Two thousand years ago followers of Christ were told “How terrible it will be for the world due to its temptations to sin! Temptations to sin are bound to happen, but how terrible it will be for that person who causes someone to sin!” Holier than thou media is one of the phenomena of our time, and while the abandon with which sinners are stoned from the media’s so-called high moral ground today is occasionally halted by exposures like those at the BBC in the Saville affair, the stones keep raining down.
The Church, for its part, has never wavered in its teaching on what is and what is not sinful. It knows all too well that it is populated by sinners but it also knows that its God-given task is to help those sinners to repentance and forgiveness in Christ’s name. It forgives repentant sinners but remains constant on what is sinful, despite pressure from many quarters through modern media to move with the spirit of the age and abandon the Way, the Truth and the Life of which it is the mystical incarnation.
The Church certainly has to find new ways of more effectively managing the challenges it faces but it is far from paralysed. As for the Church being rattled by Pope Benedict’s abdication, that is about as far from the truth as you could get. The pilgrims, 200,000 of them, who came to his final audience in St. Peter’s Square on 27 February were not rattled – and they represented millions more. Surprised, no doubt; puzzled perhaps, for a short time; but ultimately profoundly grateful for a magnificent example of humility and wisdom which in the end could only be interpreted as coming from one source, his prayer and the grace of him whose vicar he has been.
And that is the missing link in all the volumes of deliberations we have been absorbing from the world’s media in the days and weeks since 11 February – as the world in its very limited wisdom tries to work out the “madness” of the Wisdom of Catholic Church.
Perhaps we might hope for some change in all this now following the new Holy Father’s words of encouragement to 5000 journalists on the Saturday following his election? Pope Francis was nothing if not positive when he offered
“A particularly heart-felt thanks… to those who have been able to observe and present these events in the Church’s history while keeping in mind the most just perspective in which they must be read, that of faith. Historical events almost always require a complex reading that, at times, can also include the dimension of faith.
“Ecclesial events are certainly not more complicated than political or economic ones. But they have one particularly fundamental characteristic: they answer to a logic that is not mainly that of, so to speak, worldly categories, and this is precisely why it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wide and varied audience. In fact, the Church, although it is certainly also a human, historical institution with all that that entails, does not have a political nature but is essentially spiritual: it is the people of God, the holy people of God who walk toward the encounter with Jesus Christ. Only by putting oneself in this perspective can one fully explain how the Catholic Church works.”
“Christ is the Church’s Shepherd, but His presence in history moves through human freedom. Among these, one is chosen to serve as his Vicar, Successor of the Apostle Peter, but Christ is the centre, the fundamental reference, the heart of the Church! Without Him, neither Peter nor the Church would exist or have a reason for being. As Benedict XVI repeated often, Christ is present and leads His Church. In everything that has happened, the protagonist is, ultimately, the Holy Spirit. He has inspired Benedict XVI’s decision for the good of the Church; He has guided the cardinals in their prayers and in their election. Dear friends, it is important to take due account of this interpretive horizon, this hermeneutic, to bring the heart of the events of these days into focus.”
Might we hope that those words would be printed out and pinned up over his or her desk by every journalist planning to write authoritatively about the Church in future? Without the perspective given in that message they will continue to write little better than worthless nonsense.