The Popes of my life

The popes may be universal pastors, but no one of them is a universal man. Each has his own background, experience, talents, strengths and weaknesses, and each speaks from these.

It was early evening in October 1978, as I stood with tens of thousands of others in St Peter’s Square, waiting for the new Pope, whose name none of us could pronounce, to appear on the balcony.

A buzz went up from the crowd, and then we heard his first words over the PA system, a Latin greeting with a heavy Polish accent: “Laudetur Jesus Christus” (Praised be Jesus Christ).

Karol Wojtyla, the new Pope John Paul II, then went on to say that if the Holy Spirit had chosen him at that point in history, it must be that the Polish Church had something to say to the Universal Church and the world.

Those words remained with me, particularly as they cut both ways. Yes, John Paul II had something special to teach us from his experience in the Church of Poland under the Nazis and later the Communists. But he always remained Polish, and this relativized what he would say.

The popes may be universal pastors, but no one of them is a universal man. Each has his own background, experience, talents, strengths and weaknesses, and each speaks from these.

Pius XII to John XXII 

And so on the first day of the pontificate of the new Pope Francis, my memories went back to some of his predecessors. I grew to manhood under Pope Pius XII, the Pope of World War II, a distant, majestic, mysterious figure who never left the Vatican.

While I was in graduate studies John XXIII came on the scene, with an entirely different image and personality: an Italian peasant, down to earth and human who as cardinal and archbishop had taken time out to deal with quarrels among his relatives. He had a deep and simple spirituality, a good sense of humor and did not take himself too seriously.

A shrewd and understanding diplomat as well, Pope John helped to calm the Cuban Missile Crisis when a nervous finger on the nuclear trigger could have meant the end of civilization. Finally, this “caretaker Pope” from whom little was expected turned the Church on its head by calling the Second Vatican Council.

Paul VI to John Paul II

He was succeeded by Paul VI, a shy man and a diplomat who inherited the unrest unleashed by John’s Council, was baffled by it, and hovered between intransigence and indecisiveness. Yet, and aside from the controversial encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” Paul will long be remembered for a landmark encyclical on development and international justice, “Populorum Progressio.”

A change of scene and John Paul II is on center stage with a background as a laborer in a stone quarry, and underground activities aimed at keeping alive Polish culture during the dark days of Nazi and Communist domination.

As Pope he never stopped reminding the subject peoples of Eastern Europe of their cultural heritages and desire for freedom – reminders which were probably the cause of the assassination attempt and which prepared the way for the breakup of the Russian Empire.

He was charismatic, decisive, and tended to demand in the universal Church the discipline and obedience which had enabled it to survive in Poland. Unfortunately, he had little interest in administration, ignored the sexual-abuse scandal, and allowed the Vatican bureaucracy to fall into disorder and dissention.

Benedict XVI to Francis

Then came Benedict XVI, a scholar who has been described as the first really modern pope, who understood the modern world and the role of the Church in a democratic society. A shy person, he was more at home in classroom of seminar room than on the public stage.

Overwhelmed by age and the problems which he had inherited, he had the wisdom and humility to defy a tradition of many centuries and step down, changing the “rules of the papal game” dramatically.

He leaves us a simple observation, beyond all the pomp and splendor of the papal office: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty ideal, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive meaning.”

And now we have Pope Francis. Many are exploring his background looking for clues to the future. Here I shall mention only the two which he gave on the balcony of St. Peter’s. (Read: FAST FACTS: Pope Francis)

First his choice of a name, Francis, recalling the simple and poor Francis of Assisi, and the reading for the Mass celebrated at the opening of the conclave: “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me; for he has anointed me, and has sent me to bring good news to the poor.” The second was his request that the crowd in the square bless him before he blessed them. –

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