The pope who never was, the last I’ll ever listen to


I was in my study one morning last week, and there was a heartbreaking stillness across the lake. I was listening to a CD of Rachmaninov’s Vespers, which I got from a woman on the street in Ennis the previous day.

She just handed it to me without any reason. And when a woman comes out of the blue and points me in a particular direction, I don’t argue. So I sat listening to the choir all morning and wishing I was a monk: to be alone in a monastery garden. To add my voice to the choir as they sang, “Come let us worship.”

As a teenager I used to wonder why other young people were alienated from religion. What could be more wonderful, I thought, than the glow of fire in a bucket on Holy Saturday night? I thought atheism was just the cantankerous whim of grumpy students who were more intelligent than me. I didn’t realise that reading history had made them wise.

Although it wasn’t the bombs falling on Dresden or the crooked smoke wafting from the chimneys of concentration camps that destroyed Ireland ’s enthusiasm for religion. It wasn’t even B52 bombers showering napalm on Vietnam that marked the death of innocence in our hearts. It was the unrelenting drip of stories about children raped and buggered by clerics that woke us up. The grim and intimate narratives of child abuse have been the milestones in Ireland’s journey away from the pomp of Rome.

On my flatscreen TV, I watched the cardinals gather in Rome last week, like a flock of elegant flamingos. Today, they will lock themselves away in conclave and toss their prayers into the fire each time they vote for the new pope. But no matter how much I want to belong to their communion I cannot; no more than I could ever be a child again.

The scales have fallen from my eyes. I can see what is merely an elaborate ritual. I can understand the grip that myth has on the unconscious mind. And I realise that the cancer of deceit set into the organised church a long time ago, and that in the college of cardinals we now see the body of Christ reduced to a mannequin in a glass case, bereft of all humanity.

Pomp and ceremony
On my flatscreen TV I can see the entire world in high definition, and its pomp and poverty forces me sometimes to wonder if the human species is an ever-expanding cancer on the planet, eating its way into the heart of the Earth just to fuel its own survival.

For me there will be no more popes. For me, it ended when they placed Pope John Paul II in his simple coffin.

I saw the watch on his wrist, during the first Mass he celebrated as pope. And when he raised the white host into the air above his head, I knew something was wrong. Here was a man transformed forever into the likeness of the fisherman, I thought. He wears the fisherman’s shoes, and his hands hold God transformed into bread.

But the wristwatch told a different story. Time had caught up with eternity, and beneath the costume there was an ordinary man.

Pope John Paul II toured more than U2 to keep the myth alive, theatrically and heroically, until his last breath. But then came Joseph Ratzinger to the throne; a man who even as pope was known by an ordinary name. He never quite became “the holy father”, on the lips or in the hearts of the faithful. He never quite managed to shake off his earlier career or even his vulgar nickname.

Things were different, in 1958, when Angelo Roncalli became Pope John XXIII. They showed him the pope’s bed and he laughed, saying: “I will die in that bed.” Then he wrote a postcard to his sister.

“Look what happened to little Angelo,” he wrote, before appearing at the window to smile at a world from which Angelo Roncalli had vanished forever.

But not so with Joseph Ratzinger; he never quite managed to transform himself into that enduring and singular icon of an all-compassionate god. Yet Ratzinger did manage to outlive his own papacy, thus undermining its symbolic power forever.

The woman that came to me out of the blue with a CD of Rachmaninov left me her email address, so I wrote to her a love letter as I listened to the music. On the flatscreen, CNN had breaking news from St Peter’s Square, but the sound was off.