Rector's Letter - John-Paul II and Benedict XVI
The Rectory - May 2005
What a momentous Easter season! Never mind our own celebrations, which in so many ways were very special, and the continuing debates and arguments about our future as parishes. The extraordinary spectacle (can it be described as anything else?) of the death of Pope John Paul II, his funeral and the election of his successor, Pope Benedict XVI has kept the world enthralled in a way that is almost unbelievable.
I suppose memories go back to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and we are led to ask what on earth it was all about: that outpouring, not this time so much of grief (although that was present) but of something almost intangible and inexplicable in our supposedly Godless world. If we are led to ask what it was all about, I suspect that was what was going on in the media and among the population more generally. Pope John Paul II made a unique impact on the world. Of course his inherently conservative views on doctrinal and moral issues made him a controversial figure both within and outside his own church; but there was much more to him than that. There was the charisma. I met him privately at a time when he was already physically frail - at the beginning of 2000 - yet his handshake was firm, even strong, and even with his body bent and now so much smaller than me, he looked me straight in the eye. The way he travelled, the sense we got when he came to Britain in the midst of the Falklands War and took Canterbury to his heart, and then the next step was in the depths of Africa speaking out for the oppressed of Sudan or the poorest of the poor in Ghana, the way he embraced humanity at the same time as challenging it... And yet there was more. Those things in themselves would not have captivated the world in quite that unique way.
I began my Annual Report to St Peter's with the words 'Context is everything'. We are people of a context: churches in a context, the Christian community in a context. Pope John Paul remained always a man of his context, a man who grew up and honed his theology and his ministry under a coldly, inhumane communist regime in Poland. I don't think we in our context could ever fully appreciate what that was like. But it was that instinctive reaction to stand with oppressed people and speak out for freedom; to stand within a culture of spiritual and even physical death and fight for life; to stand within a world culture in danger of becoming tawdry and monochrome and live within himself a counter-culture of colour, faith and celebration that turned peoples' heads, whether they were Catholics, people of faith or those simply of goodwill. He could not be ignored.
The mantle falls to a very different man. The responsibilities laid upon someone of his age are enormous. He has a difficult reputation to live with or live down. We need to be generous in giving him time to establish himself. And, whether we see the papacy as a plus or a problem in our ecumenical relationships, we cannot ignore it, and we should pray for Pope Benedict.
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