15 Sep 2010

Why Benedict is no John Paul

The excitement was palpable. As a young correspondent in Rome, I’d seen the white smoke that signalled the election of the youngest Pope in modern times – John Paul II, on 16 October 1978.

Now, less than five years later, after he had survived the assassin’s bullet, I was standing on the tarmac at Gatwick airport watching his Alitalia 727 touch down on English soil. The first Pope ever to set foot in  Britain kissed the ground at the bottom of the aircraft steps. There was euphoria abroad.

I had already accompanied him on trips to Santa Domingo, Mexico (6 million people on the roads leading to the shrine of our Lady of Guadeloupe), Ireland (750,000 people in Phoenix Park), and Poland (one million straining to see him at the shrine of the Black Madonna). Euphoria was tipping over into hysteria.

It mattered not that the Pope had retreated to the most conservative interpretation of the Catholic faith. What he brought was a personal sense of saintliness and a remarkable capacity to connect with his vast audiences.

If there was scandal, it was about money, Vatican money. Within days of his departure from Britain, the Italian banker Roberto Calvi was found hanging from the girders beneath London’s Blackfriars Bridge.

“God’s Banker”, he was dubbed. Calvi ran the Banco Ambrosiano in Italy and enjoyed a more than close banking relationship with the Vatican’s own money man, the sinister American, Archbishop Marcinkus. There was evidence of grubby deals and corrupt movements of money involving Vatican officials.

But John Paul seemed to those of us reporting him to be above all this. Even Calvi’s murder cast no shadow on the Pope’s sainted reputation.

Not so Pope Benedict. With his church mired in the global Catholic child abuse scandal, he gives every appearance of being very much at the centre of it all. Rightly or wrongly, he’s seen as having attempted first to cover it up, then to have tried to keep its resolution “in house”.

He’s also seen as reluctant to make the scale of apology the scandal demands. It may be that Benedict is a victim himself. But where bad news slipped away from his predecessor, it seems to cling to Benedict.

I well remember standing late into the evening amongst tens of thousands of young people in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park as Pope John Paul engaged in dialogue with them, sang songs and strummed a guitar. He rocked. No one expects such engagement with Benedict.

We are told he is a towering intellectual. But unlike John Paul, he has been in the engine room at the Vatican for years. He was there when the worst of the paedophile cover-up was at it height. Perhaps John Paul was as culpable, but he’d put a lot of charisma and PR into his image when the tidal wave of criticism hit.

No such luck for Benedict. Tens of thousands of the faithful will turn out anyway. So will those who simply want to glimpse a famous moment. But the spirit of uplift and renewal that John Paul’s visit conjured – that seems unlikely.

Maybe this will be a more truly representative papal trip than any we saw with Pope John Paul. But whatever it was, that 1982 voyage to Britain by John Paul was an awful lot of fun.

That’s not a word I have yet heard deployed this time around with Benedict.

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