Let’s face it, as human beings we instinctively have favourites. And over the last century, we have been able to know major figures, such as popes and prime minsters, through television, radio and photography, in ways past generations could have hardly dreamed of.
When Cardinal Ratzinger was elected in succession to St John Paul II, he must have thought carefully about what name he would pick. Each possible name was loaded with meaning. John XXIV? An indication that the pace of change would pick up. Paul VII? A small but significant indication of putting on the brakes. Pius XIII? A desire to return to how things were before the Second Vatican Council. John Paul III? Audacious – but no-one could fill those shoes in the same way as the Polish Pope. Wisely, Cardinal Ratzinger picked the only other papal name used in the 20th Century. Benedict XV had been elected at the outbreak of the Great War and gained a reputation as a man of peace until his death in 1922. In choosing his Papal Name, Benedict XVI signalled his desire also to be a man of peace, while refusing to allow himself to be labelled a liberal or a conservative.
When Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope, he picked a name loaded with meaning – ‘Francis’ had never been used by a Pope before, but the very name sent a strong message about making Jesus known in a simple way, caring for the environment, and rebuilding our church. When Blessed John Paul II was declared a saint last year, Pope Francis fast-tracked Blessed John XXIII to the same status, bypassing the usual requirement for a second miracle to be attributed to his intercession. The ‘progressive’ Good Pope John was canonized alongside the more ‘traditional’ John Paul the Great.
That’s interesting. Both of our most recent Popes have tried to avoid being pigeon-holed as a “liberal” or a “conservative”. These are two traps we can easily fall into.
Some of us instinctively feel most comfortable in the past. We remember the Latin prayers we grew up with, the ceremonies the Church used to carry out regularly, and those old familiar memories feel very comfortable. They say “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”, but if your favourite Pope is one who didn’t encourage big changes in the way we worship, that might be because you don’t like change. That’s very human, but it’s also an obstacle to spiritual growth, since the Gospels often say “Change, and believe the Good News!”
Others among us are natural humanitarians, with big hearts drawn to ease the sufferings of others. We might see in St John XXIII or the reign of Pope Francis someone whose values are like our own, although all the Popes, in quiet ways, have cared for the poor. We might even get frustrated when Popes fiddle around with the structure of prayer services or focus on teaching about the Trinity, investing energy where it doesn’t obviously help people in need.
Some years ago, in moves begun by St John Paul II and completed by Benedict XVI, we were asked to adjust the language used to celebrate Mass in English. Some saw the new form of English as beautiful and fitting for the majesty of God. Others felt it was needlessly complicated. But we made that change as an act of unity with the Pope.
We have, today, a new heir to the keys of Peter. Pope Francis holds, for his reign, the power to bind and loose in earth and in heaven. He has chosen to use this power to announce a Year of Mercy commencing this autumn, a year for the forgiveness of sins through pilgrimages to the Holy Doors to be set up in our cathedrals and the work of Missionaries of Mercy sent far and wide to forgive sins. He has also asked us to give a special priority to care for Planet Earth, our common home. No Pope can do everything at once, and only by taking one thing at a time, can those who fill the shoes of Peter fulfil the mission which St Paul spoke of in today’s second reading, the work of ‘proclaiming the whole message’.
It’s OK to have a favourite Pope. What’s not OK is to pick and choose which Popes we are willing to listen to.
In the Gospel we’ve just heard, Our Lord chooses Simon-Bar-Jonah the fisherman, and gives him a new name, Peter, meaning ‘The Rock’. He names him the foundation stone of the new community, the Church. It was part of the Lord’s plan for a mere human being to be the centre of unity for the Christian Community on earth. And that man can only be a centre of unity if we accept the lead he gives us. We don’t have to like everything he says. We can have our own private opinion about what priorities we would have chosen if we were Pope. But we’re not. Other Christian communities are divided precisely because they make major decisions at national or local level. One of the things that makes us Catholic is having one person as a centre of unity for the Church throughout the world.
We read in the Gospel that ‘Herod meant to try Peter in public’. Today, every Pope is put on trial in public. The secular press and the Catholic press analyse every word and action. Often enough the reports we receive tell us little about what the Pope has done, and much about what the journalist concerned thinks the Pope ought to do.
If we only follow those Papal teachings we like, we have set ourselves up as Pope and made ourselves judge of whether to accept each Bishop of Rome as our personal advisor. But if we are truly Catholic, we will trust the Lord to build his Church on the Rock of Peter in every age, and we will choose to make each Pope’s priority our priority, whether that Pope is our favourite Pope or not.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, as the senior Cardinal says at each Papal Election: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: HABEMUS PAPAM! I announce to you a great joy. WE HAVE A POPE!
Whether or not he is your favourite Pope, this I know: the Pope’s a Catholic. Are you?