Articles by Michael Fallon

Pope Benedict XVI, a reflection 24th April 2005

Because of his high profile in the Church as Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the position he has taken on many issues throughout the papacy of John-Paul II, the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope will be welcomed by many with joy, by others with indifference, and by yet others with initial disappointment. Such a variety of responses is natural and to be expected in a community as large and all-embracing as the Catholic Church. Moreover we soon recognise that such initial reactions are of little importance. What matters is that our responses come from our faith. Let us reflect briefly on two things: on the role of the pope, and on the place of the Holy Spirit in the election process.

The media speaks of the pope as though he were the general manager of the Church. Words like ‘running the Church’, ‘governing the church’, ‘in charge of the Church’ are a commonplace. They are also a nonsense. Such terms sit awkwardly in the community of Jesus’ disciples. If they are to be used at all, they must be used with great care and are best applied to the local bishop. In the case of the Pope, this means the diocese of Rome. In our case it means the diocese of Canberra-Goulburn. Our faith assures us that each local faith community has all the gifts needed to live a Christian life in community. The greatest gift is, of course, love, and so the most important leaders are the leaders in love. We do need gifts of management, and organisational leadership in the local community is exercised by the local bishop, not the Pope. In recent history for quite complex reasons that do not include faith there has emerged a strong centralised government in the Church. This has not always been the case nor has it always been possible throughout the long history of the Church. It could change without in any way lessening the importance of the papacy as an institution in the Church.

In his encyclical ‘That they may all be one’(1995), Pope John-Paul II offered a lengthy reflection on what he calls ‘the ministry of unity of the Bishop of Rome’(§§88-96). He quotes Vatican II, which speaks of the Pope’s ministry as that of the ‘perpetual and visible principle of unity’. He insists that ‘primacy’ must not be separated from service, quoting Jesus: ‘I am among you as one who serves’(Luke 22:27). He asks forgiveness for the times that the papacy has not been exercised in this way. Matthew has Jesus choosing Peter as the rock when Peter has acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who brings about the reign of God’s love and is the answer to all our human hopes and dreams (Matthew 16:16). At Jesus’ trial Peter failed but Jesus asked him: ‘when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers’(Luke 22:32). On one occasion, Jesus accused Peter of being a hindrance to the carrying out of God’s will (Matthew 16:23). History demonstrates that popes can be, too. So we pray for Pope Benedict XVI that he will be open to the grace that will certainly be offered to him to nurture and encourage unity in the church through the communion of all the local communities that make up the Body of Christ in the world. As Pope John-Paul insists, all that the pope does ‘must be done in communion’(§95). He goes on to pray: ‘I insistently pray the Holy Spirit to shine his light upon us, enlightening all the pastors and theologians of our churches, that we may seek – together, of course – the forms in which the ministry of the Bishop of Rome may accomplish a service of love recognised by all’(§95). This brief reflection is lacking in specifics, so why not read what Pope John-Paul II says in the encyclical?

As to the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the election, our faith assures us that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the risen Jesus, is with us ‘always, to the end of time’(Matthew 28:20). This means that God was certainly inspiring the cardinals to choose a pope after God’s own heart. However, knowledge of papal elections over the centuries demonstrates that motives other than faith have played a part. Our faith does not give us any assurance that the cardinals followed God’s inspiration, but surely we can hope that that is what they did. In any case the key point of faith is that whether they did or did not listen, God is love and he will be guiding Pope Benedict XVI to do God’s will and to be an instrument of grace to the Church and the world. Our prayer for the Pope should be the same as our prayer for everyone else: a prayer that he will listen humbly to grace and act courageously in response to God’s inspiration. If he does that we will all be graced. Let us hold Pope Benedict XVI in our hearts and lift them up in prayer for him, for ourselves, for our Church and for the world.