Time to welcome a pilgrim pope


We can only hope the Taoiseach’s speech after the Cloyne report did not cost us the chance of a visit for now, writes JOHN WATERS

A FORTNIGHT ago in Madrid, the morning after Pope Benedict XVI said Mass in front of two million young people for World Youth Day, a squad of journalists from one of the leading Spanish dailies descended on the aerodrome at Cuatro Vientus, where the event had taken place.

They walked around looking at the ground, sifting among the detritus of the previous day’s happenings. They were searching for beer cans, used condoms, evidence of drug use among the young people who had gathered to greet the pope. They found nothing to satisfy them.

Before the visit, the media had been promoting the grievances of a tiny group of secularist malcontents, protesting on the spurious ground the visit was at the expense of the Spanish taxpayer. Now, the journalists searched for something by which to reinterpret what had occurred.

All that day, despite temperatures of nearly 40 degrees, hordes of young people sang and danced as they waited for the pope. On his arrival, they greeted him with much affection. Later, as Pope Benedict began his homily, there was a change in the weather. All day, firemen had sprayed water over the growing crowds to keep the young people cool. The rain that came now left nothing or nobody unsaturated.

For a short time there was confusion. The pope abandoned his homily, and it became unclear whether the event could continue. Then he spoke again. He said the Lord had sent the rain as a gift. He told the young people they would encounter trials in their lives much worse than this rain, but should not be fearful because they would be accompanied always. “Your faith is stronger than the rain,” he said. Then, with the storm raging, the pope knelt before the Blessed Sacrament, and the two million young people assembled in Cuatro Vientus lapsed into silence.

Seasoned policemen afterwards said they had never seen anything like it. Had a storm like this hit a rock concert or a football match, they agreed, there might have been a catastrophe. Here, there was silence, stillness, before something immense and seemingly immeasurably attractive. For seven years, Spain had been in the clutches of a regime that sought to squeeze the mysteriousness out of civic reality; but, still, the children of that era, and their contemporaries from around the world, could recognise something more hopeful than what politicians call progress and more beautiful than what journalists call freedom.

Mercifully, as with the pope’s British visit last September, enough reporters carried enough of the facts for something of the true picture to emerge above the peevish official narrative that has persisted for more than six years. This has insisted Benedict XVI could never be as loved as his predecessor – being too austere, too cerebral, too reactionary and obsessed with dogma.

Wherever he goes, Benedict XVI is embraced by crowds that swell with each voyage. Speaking through the megaphone of his enemies, he delivers the clearest analyses of the difficulties of seeing clearly in a world shrouded in the fog of unreason. He speaks to people of their deepest desires and they respond by opening their hearts with a confidence that defies all expectations.

It seemed strange that, when he went to Britain last year, the pope did not stop off awhile here. Perhaps someone told him that what was once the most Catholic country in Europe has lately become the most anti-Catholic. Another telling had it that he had planned to come for the Eucharistic Congress next June. From speaking to people in the know, I gather any such prospect has been scuppered by the Taoiseach’s recent speech, in which he criticised the Vatican and so completely misrepresented the pope’s attitude to the civil power as to leave open the possibility of some previously unsuspected malice.

But one source, whom I trust implicitly, was not so sure: “The speech has made a visit diplomatically impossible, but the pope is not a diplomat,” he told me. “He is a man who knows his own mind absolutely.”

At the superficial level of Irish public discourse, the idea that the pope might be deterred from coming is likely to be greeted with glee. Deeper down, in the silent soul of Ireland, the loss of such an opportunity for renewal and healing will be greatly felt. Time after time, we have watched this pope confound his enemies and provoke responses that were not – could not have been – predicted. Many of us have observed his quiet insistence on reiterating his perceptions of modern society, and wished for something of such insight from other quarters. Many Irish people would welcome the provocation such a visit would offer, as a way, at the very least, of breaking with present patterns.

On balance, it seems the ugliness of Ireland Past will continue to exclude any possibility of a transformative event such as the pope’s presence has unleashed in other places.

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