News Analysis

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Anne Harris: The wolf of despair and a beatific smile

Pope must tackle major issues facing church and not get bogged down in Vatican politics, writes

Anne Harris

Published 17/03/2013 | 05:00

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Pope Francis

I come from a long line of women who were in love with a pope. For my grandmother it was Pope Pius XII. In her last years she, who had been a beauty, even grew to look like him the way lovers do: forbidding, austere and frightening to small children.

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My mother (who had eight children) fell for a different type. For her it was Pope John XXIII. She went all gooey when his name was mentioned. And why wouldn't she? The architect of Vatican Two and the man who officially ended anti-semitism in the Vatican came from humble stock. He instigated a report on birth control and seemed to hold the idea that sexual love between consenting adults – conjugal love – was a gift from God that didn't have to lead to procreation.

They soon put paid to that notion and that's where I opted out. The church's position on women priests sealed that door from the outside.

Last Wednesday, I felt a hand on my shoulder – the collective unconscious of my female lineage. As in all matters like this, timing is of the essence. And it began with that spectacular piece of timing – the white smoke plume minutes before major news bulletins all over the world.

The next hour was an eternity in the Eternal City. Myself and the world channel-hopped to break the monotony of the aerial shot of St Peter's Square. Because of this we heard every religious affairs correspondent in the world hold forth on front-runners, back-runners and runners-up, Ouellet, O'Malley, Scola, the need for good managers, the need for curia control, the need for good press relations and, of course, child sex abuse.

On and on it went until finally, after an hour, the mischievous little cardinal appeared on the balcony (we had been reliably informed by the Sky religious correspondent that he would say "dominum" twice and then the name of the new pope), sure enough he said "dominum" twice, uttered a name and the entire square of 70,000 people and every news channel in the world fell silent. Absolute silence, the way birds go silent mid-squawk during a full eclipse of the sun. Cardinal who? Pope who?

Bryan Dobson was wordless, Channel 4's Jon Snow was wordless. Finally, the Sky correspondent spoke: "Bergoglio. I met him once," he said "he has a lovely smile."

As the news channels recovered their composure, I, and the world, waited for the lovely smile. After a while the curtains parted and Pope Francis emerged. Unsmiling.

As the cardinals fussed, a big man in white, of singu-lar composure, gazed out over the city of which he is now bishop. His gaze will have taken in the seven iconic hills, sweeping down to the river, birthplace of Remus, and Romulus, founder of the city who, along with his twin, was suckled by the she-wolves. This new Pope has chosen the name Francis, after the Italian saint, who also had an affinity with a wolf. Legend has it he kept villag-ers safe by appeasing a wolf.

Is it too fanciful to think this new Pope has a master plan for the feral children of the church and the marauding wolves of the world economies?

Suddenly, he broke his reverie, gazing down at the people as if singling out some that he knew. Then he spoke. "Bueno sera," he said. And smiled. The man from Sky was right. It is a smile that would light up the dark.

A friend who has grown weary in the study of matters ecclesiastical said to me of the smile: "There is nothing wrong, I suppose, with giving some sign of hope."

I see the smile as something different.

Everybody knows that St Francis was an eccentric who embraced poverty with enthusiasm and extremism – which is why he is beloved of left-wing causes. But what some of his solemn modern advocates don't know is that he insisted on a happy disposition from his brethren. They had to have fun, enjoy life, be of good cheer.

Pope Francis is a Jesuit, an order considered intellectually superior, committed to social justice, an order known for extreme courage in the dictatorships of Latin America, an order which has its martyrs in San Salvador and Argentina. Obviously there is something very symbolic in his choice of name. Between the Jesuits and the Franciscans there seems to be a clerical chasm. Will he bridge that gap with a smile?

The Franciscans hold a special position in the hearts of Cork Catholics. When I was growing up there, they undertook to build a huge new church, but being dedicated to poverty, they had no funds, so the money was raised by the parish. Bricks and mortar having been secured, they needed gold and jewels for the altar, tabernacles and vestments, so they appealed to the women of the parish.

All the women in my mother's family, most of whom lived in northern counties, donated their wedding rings, engage-ments rings, eternity rings, maternity rings, pendants, charms and chains to the cause. My grandmother (she of Pius XII worship) sent rubies and sapphires. All for St Francis. It was an extraordinary seduction of the spirit – and the jewellery boxes – of the women.

Pope Francis, we are told, was once engaged, so he knows women. He has a special devotion to the Madonna we are told. We can only hope that, unlike many of his predecessors, he is not given to venerating one woman, in order to denigrate all the others.

In the same way that we can only hope these reports out of Argentina that he maintained a problematic silence during the years of military dictatorship are untrue, in particular in relation to two Jesuits who were tortured by the regime.

Pope Francis is a child – survivor – of the 20th Century, the terrible century which left few consciences unclouded. Pope Pius XII left a dark cloud of perceived anti-semitism, never fully addressed by the Vatican. Pope Benedict was forgiven his Hitler Youth past. Pope Francis, in all probability, has his own Don't Cry For me Argentina, and it has to be said the two Jesuits who were tortured have since concelebrated Mass with him.

He is in Rome now. The son of poor Italian emigrants has taken a long road home.

While it is a certainty that at the end of his tenure we will still have no women priests, no same sex marriage and no contraception other than (hopefully) for the prevention of the spread of disease, it is devoutly to be wished that he doesn't lose his spirit.

For the sake of the secular world, we must hope that he doesn't get bogged down in controlling the curia or anger-managing the cardinals. And that he keeps the wolf of despair from the door with his "lovely smile".

Irish Independent

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