1 Oct 2013

Can two old priests change the world?

We should have been at war by now. Of course we are still at war, but, given recent history, all the signs were that we would be at a new war by now. Hard to believe that just three weeks ago an American war on Syria looked horrifically probable.

There are US, UK and other special forces all over the areas of tension and conflict in the Middle East and beyond – from Pakistan to Yemen, from Jordan to Mali. And of course we are still heavily at war in Afghanistan, but now looking for any which way to get out.


Amid the abject failure of the Bush/Blair policy of military intervention, two clerics of pensionable age have arisen from the ashes of one of the most misguided periods of global intercourse.

First came the election of a bespectacled priest from Argentina of whom most of us had never heard. Jorge Mario Bergoglio became pope. We were intrigued that no Jesuit had ever become pope, we were uncertain what a prelate from Latin America would bring. We were touched that he would have no truck with his predecessor’s hand-made red shoes and ludicrous pope-mobile. But we were told he was conservative, even that he might not have been the most ferocious of priestly opponents of the country’s erstwhile military junta.

We dared not gamble that he would be relaxed about sexuality; that he would be as exasperated as any other sane man and woman by the constant catholic emphasis on contraception and abortion. He indeed proved so conservative that he actually believes in God and in living a Christian life – something many of his predecessors have managed to disguise at the very least.

Then came the election of another priest, this time a turbanised figure from Iran.

Dr Hassan Rouhani became president. Then came another priest. A man with a direct ecclesiastical link with Iran’s supreme leader. Rouhani was elected by a landslide having been approved for the temporal electoral slate by Ayatolla Khamenei.

We, who covered the election, were surprised by the openness and fervour of his rallies. We perhaps did not gamble that he would win. We thought it would all be fixed for one of the hardliners. Perhaps the reverse was true.

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Last week this priest did what no other Iranian has managed in more than three decades, he took the American establishment by storm, and was wise enough not to be seen clinching a presidential handshake to prove it. The unseen phone call said it all instead.

Both these priests have huge mountains of prejudice and doubt to climb. Both are in a hurry. They are in that age when a man knows that his time is perhaps limited. Rouhani is 64, Pope Francis is 76.

They both have angry opponents in their own ranks to quieten, let alone the forces beyond.

After more than a decade in which younger men – invariably men – have determined to resolve matters by military intervention, two older men have arisen who may at last herald a more creative and hopeful era. This 60-something year-old, at least, has decided to blog with optimism on his sleeve.

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