Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Pope We Come To Hear

It is intriguing that, when young people talk of World Youth Day, they commonly say that they are going to hear Pope Benedict. At previous World Youth Days they spoke of going to see John Paul II.

Does this mean that in being heard rather than seen Benedict is shaping up as a Protestant Pope? That would really stretch credulity. The change is of everyday significance. It reflects the differing personal style of the two Popes that the young people have caught.

The previous Pope had an instinctive feel for an audience and an occasion. He was a media performer, a Pope for television. Even though what he said was often deep, his speaking was theatre and what he said was declaratory. So people went to see him speak.

Benedict is a scholar and a naturally reserved man. Public performance comes less easily to him. He has a care for words and argument, and many Western readers find him easier to understand than his predecessor. For all his taste for colourful and ancient clothing, he is perhaps a Pope for radio.

In his intellectual style, too, Pope Benedict belongs to the university, to a world where different positions can be heard, argued and evaluated. Even his sermons are conversational in the sense that his imagery allows each reader to appropriate what is said in a personal way. He is a man whom we might go to hear speak.

Underlying the personal differences, however, is a different Papal style. Pope John Paul inherited a Polish history whose decisive encounters with the West were with the medieval church. The Pope was at the centre both of political and of church unity. After the Reformation the central focus on the Pope became stronger even as his political role diminished. The Pope was the universal face of the Church. Pope John Paul II enacted this role especially in his journeys. Wherever he went he often described himself to the people as 'your Pope'.

Pope Benedict comes from Bavaria, whose Christian beginnings in the fourth century are still a living memory. His history and his studies make him at home in an earlier church where the Bishop of Rome had a central place in guaranteeing the unity of the Church, but was placed within a network of significant Churches each of which claimed foundation by the Apostles and each of which had its own tradition. A central task of the Pope was to encourage and to strengthen the local Churches.

These subtle differences of personal and papal style may help explain why the present Pope, despite the fears stirred by his media image as 'God's enforcer' when Prefect of the Congregation for the Defence of the Faith, has seemed a more eirenical figure within the Church than was his predecessor. Certainly many tensions and conflicts about what it means for the Church to be faithful to the Gospel remain. But the conversation about them is not as fraught.

World Youth Day is a celebration for young Catholics. But it is also a theatrical event whose climax is the Papal Mass. There the Pope is on show to gather the whole event together. Whether pilgrims came to see or hear the Pope, they will take home the memory of being there, of seeing and hearing.

But the depth of their experience will depend on the quality of conversation that the event generates, the sense that as well as hearing they have been heard. Both active and passive voices are important in Popes.

Written by Fr Andrew Hamilton