11 Feb 2013

The Pope's resigned, so?

It’s probably the most innovative thing he’s done as Pope. Something no other Pope has done in over six hundred years – resign. Old age and frailty are the public explanation, and at 85, who’s to say there may not be a considerable element of truth in it.

Some part of the journalist in me has been a Vatican watcher ever since I was posted to Rome in the year of two dead Popes – Paul VI and John Paul I.  I have reported from each of the three Pope selecting conclaves since.

I travelled extensively with John Paul II. Many of us aboard his first Papal adventure, to Santa Domingo and Mexico, mistakenly believed that charisma doubled for radical change. It didn’t.

Little did we know that behind the iron curtain there beat in the Polish Catholic heart a deep conservatism. John Paul II may well have been a good footballer and skier, and may well have come to the priesthood late enough to have had a girlfriend, but he was no radical.

Under that long Papacy little or nothing was done to address the corruption and money laundering for which the Vatican Bank was long suspected. But even the discovery of the body of Roberto Calvi hanging from beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London in June 1982 failed to address the scale of corruption inside Vatican City.

Calvi, the head of Banco Ambrosiano had been doing big business with both the Vatican Bank and the Mafia at one and the same time. Although the coroner concluded that Calvi had been murdered, the five who were tried in Rome for his death were all acquitted.

Allegations of corruption in the Vatican surfaced again when the Pope’s butler leaked the content of the Pope’s private files revealing more dubious goings on. The butler has been pardoned by the Pope and is a free man, though perhaps unsurprisingly now a somewhat silent one.

Some say Benedict has a better record of dealing with the church’s child abuse epidemic. In truth, compared with the legacy of failure on the issue from his predecessor, he was almost bound to do somewhat better.

For the rest, Benedict has satisfied the devout with his prayerfulness, but history may judge that his enthusiasm for winning the Papacy may not have provided the church with the vigour and insight over the need for change that the church perhaps needed.

And I haven’t mentioned contraception and the implication that the church’s teaching has on the spread of AIDS in the developing world.

One problem the church may face is that Benedict has not been inefficient in appointing cardinals in his own relatively conservative mould. Six more red hats were awarded as recently as November 24th.

Sixty two of the eligible cardinals who will vote on a successor are Europeans. The other 58 are from all over the world with small blocs of national support, but without the kind of clout the Europeans and the 10 American cardinals will be able to muster to influence the outcome.

Finally let’s not forget the feast of pageantry we are in for. No funeral of course – but the romance of the grey smoke signals for each failure to agree a Pope and the magic moment with white smoke when the have one. The senior cardinal coming out onto the deis of St Peter’s declaiming ‘Habemus Papam’ (We have a Pope!).

I remember that moment when John Paul II was chosen: ‘Habemas Papam: Suo nome — Karol Wojtyla’. ‘My god’, cried the man standing next to me in St Peter’s Square, ‘they’ve chosen a WOMAN!’

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