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Page 3, 21st October 1978

21st October 1978
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Page 3, 21st October 1978 — A conclave makes history
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A conclave makes history

The election of a Polish cardinal to the papal throne is not only a turning point in the history of the Church, but highly significant for the world at large. No election could have been more imaginative and courageous than this one. It displays the resilience and universal character of the Church. It was totally surprising and yet, once declared, it appears to be wholly appropriate.

The new Pope's choice of title is a signal tribute to his predecessor. For the foreseeable future the long Italian tenure of the papacy has ended. Its last representative has left behind his brief passage an image of grace and charm which will never be forgotten. A dramatist of genius might have conceived of such a transition: the reality surely shows that the Holy Spirit is with his Church, as unpredictable as ever, and yet dominant in her destiny.

The new Pope would appear to be a man of God and at ease with people, of great strength of character, and yet conciliatory and commonsensical. Archbishop Worlock, who knows him well, has described him as "the greatest intellect I have ever met. . . he has a wry, wrinkled smile and is a man of wonderfully exuberant good spirits. He possesses a fantastic ability to analyse and weigh up everything". These are qualities that would seem to fit him admirably for the immense tasks ahead. His background also has provided the best possible preparation, not only his upbringing and the circumstances of his youth, but the fact that in his formative years he must have experienced tragedy and desolation in the darkness which fell upon Poland in the years of the war and immediately afterwards. No modern Pope has had to come through such a baptism of fire or has been tested by such harsh realities. He will have known at first hand the horrors of Auschwitz — so near to his home — and after the Nazi horror that of Russian Communism. After the troubled years of his twenties the young priest grew up to see the consolidation of the Communist regime in his country alongside the growing cohesion and renewal of the Polish church, which is in so many ways an example to all others. The churches are crowded, vocations are plentiful and the faith is a guarantor of spiritual freedom despite every effort of the State to stifle it.

Clearly his lifelong close contact with Communism gives John Paul II an immense initial advantage when dealing with that phenomenon all over the world. Cracow is not normally a cardinalatial see, so it may be surmised that Paul VI in his great wisdom and foresight and as part of his Ostpolitik was not unaware of the possibility, however remote, of seeing a successor coming from there, in the heart of the Communist bloc. A pope able to speak to all nations, coming from what was formerly called the Church of Silence, must give heart, not only to the Poles, but to all countries under Soviet domination. Likewise the Euro-Communists of Latin Europe will be attentive to this cardinal who has come in from the cold.

This is not to suggest that John Paul II will be primarily a political pope. In his first address to the cardinals he specifically disavowed any such intention, saying that he did not consider it part of his duty to interfere in the politics of nations. There are other points in that speech, which we shall reproduce in full next week, which merit great attention. The new Pope takes his stand on Vatican II as an event of immense importance to the history of the Church, but he made the point that the documents of the council are not dead documents but points of growth to be explored and lived in the life of the Church. They point the way to mission and ecumenism and organic growth as well as to discipline. He has no narrow conception of the Church. He asked his brethren to reflect on ecclesiology, considering it in terms of the whole human family. He sees the Church as the universal sacrament for all. It is already clear that he will follow the collegial line of his immediate predecessor. He mentioned collegiality three times and stressed the importance of the synod, which he said "sprang from the great mind of Paul VI." Very wisely he did not formulate a detailed programme or forecast the future of his pontificate: "My speech," he said, "is really an appeal and a prayer rather than a firm programme." It falls on each one of us now to meditate on the way ahead.

The new Pope is not only the successor of Peter, he is the successor of John Paul. His inheritance is not only a tradition and a chequered history of 2,000 years, it is the lesson of one month in which the catalystic effect of the new style of papacy seemed instantly to convey itself to the world at large. There could be no immediate change in the structures and present ways and practices, but the traumatic effect of this brief reign seems to have induced in the Church a new self-awareness and a heightened sense of responsibility.

Admonitions, laments and a certain pessimism characterised the last years of Paul VI: he spent himself utterly in the service of the Church; reactions had often been negative. The end was sad and predictable. The new Pope does not take over at this point but one far removed from it, where much ground has been gained by Paul's successor in a different dimension, in confidence and hope.

He has the good will of millions all over the world, but more important than good will, which is a part of loyalty, is a dawning consciousness amongst the people of God that they individually and collectively are responsible for the Church today and tomorrow. The notion of coresponsibility must have been present to the little flock of the primitive Church.

It was virtually lost for centuries, except in the lives of men of genius, courage and sanctity, like Benedict and Francis and Ignatius, as well as a host of others, men and women, who realised that the Church was as much in their keeping as in that of their pastors and of the Pope himself.

Coresponsibility modifies conceptions of the papacy, not in the sense of downgrading it but almost the reverse: rescuing the papacy from the isolation of absolute power and putting it centrally in the pattern of the Church's behaviour, something related to every member and circumstance.

At this point we would like to associate ourselves with the views of the leading Catholic weekly in Spain, Vida Nueva, on the tasks confronting the Church today lest it be thought that ours is an eccentric and personal view.

The article begins by considering the central problems of the Church and the need for reconciling diversity with unity.

The world is irremediably divided. The Church must strive for a unity characterised by communion more than by uniformity. As regards ecumenism, this must now pass beyond fine phrases into practical measures. A return to the spirit of the Gospel implies different priorities in the structure and style of the Church which today have little to do with the world of the poor — the world to which Christ came and which has not gone away. The article goes on to say that renovation and coresponsibility mean, on the one hand, that Vatican II is still in process of implementation, calling for much more than a superficial retouching of the Church's appearance; on the other hand coresponsibility should not be interpreted by the papacy as a matter for reluctant and timid concession, but a means of unloading the dead weight of centralising tendencies accumulated over centuries. From these considerations the article moves on to problems experienced by local churches in varying degrees. In liturgy, the stage of translation to the vernacular is over. The next stage must be creative, where the local context is taken into account without losing communion with the Church as a whole.

As regards ministry, the hierarchical and pyramidal structure is too stylised, inadequate for new situations and needs. The question of clerical celibacy is related to this problem; there is an alarming defection from the priesthood which indicates that, whereas the idea of a consecrated celibate life is vital to the Church, it should be kept separate from the disciplinary law at present binding on all priests.

When it comes to sexuality and family life the article calls for something more positive than dismay and consternation in the face of the unbridled sexuality in the world today, and for a more ecclesial and pastoral approach to all matters related to family life: family planning, marital breakdown and so forth.

As if all this were not more than enough for the attention of the Church, the article concludes with some of the major preoccupations of the world which should also be those of the Church. There must be unremitting attention to scientific progress so that it is not indulged in for its own sake, but disciplined for the sake of humanity. Economic and social justice, the problems of war and peace, must be uppermost in the concern of the Church for the world. What inevitably emerges is that no single man can possibly deal with them all, or indeed be expected to deal decisively on his own with any single one of them. Delegation of power is the only answer to an otherwise insupportable situation and the first should be a vast delegation to local churches. Some would answer "Better a pope in Rome than a pope at home" and show good reason for this view. But delegation from the centre does not necessarily involve dispossession of its influence and the power of example and strength of character. On the contrary, delegation is the best way of making these qualities shine forth above the stultifying effect of bureaucracy, the inevitable concomitant of all centralised control and over-government. Nobody wants anarchy in the Church but everyone should want to see the disappearance of the whole range of rules and regulations — far removed from central doctrine — from which, if they want an exemption, local hierarchies have to seek permission from Rome or else decide not even to make the attempt however much an exception might be locally helpful.

It is devoutly to be hoped that the new Pope will make it clear that the papacy was not instituted for such a situation. The three-fold question of the risen Lord to Peter by the sea of Tiberias is still asked of his successors, and Peter's positive response brought forth the simplest of commands. Now, the hungry sheep look up, both those within the fold and the strays, and need to be fed by the sacraments at a school of prayer that fits them for the world outside — which is also, of course, inside. Mrs Thatcher offers the prospect of a nation bereft of defensive fear, emphasising initiative and creativity, training itself for excellence and rejecting the kind of levelling down that passes for equality but is in fact only an option for the least common denominator: a timorous abdication of responsibility in favour of over-centralisation. Some Christians at least will argue that in all this the Tory leader has the support of the principle of subsidiary function which has gained new currency in recent debates.

But what was lacking in the Tory conference was the sense of a spiritual dynamism. Conservatives have offered impressive leadership from time to time in the context of an imperial Britain, and even played their part in a responsible dismantling of those structures, in the transition from empire to commonwealth. But what have they to offer our sick and disheartened society, fundamentally a sinful society, in terms of moral leadership? Crime is on the rampage. Frustrated and sceptical youth are looking for new motivations, and it should still be within this country's competence to offer moral leadership to a Europe still failing to come to grips with its duty to the impoverished world. Can the Tories convince us, for instance, that even though the profit motive has a legitimate role to play, the primary purpose of business is to serve humanity and recreate the face of the earth in terms of justiCe and generosity? What, for example, would they do about the Third World's desperate need for managerial and technological training: for the knowledge, skills and support that would bring it into direct competition with the so-called developed countries?

We would also once again make the point we made last week in relation to the role of the Labour Party: the need to rescue this country from widespread passivity, to create an authentic democracy by urging the rank and file to accept their responsibilities in the decision-making processes of political and industrial life. This is why we do not hesitate to insist again and again on the relevance of worker-participation in industrial control, on the unions' duty to work, not only for better wages, but for the shaping of a new social order. Give the people something to do, a reason for taking risks, a sense that the responsibility is theirs. The real threat from emerging industrial powers like Mexico, Brazil or Korea is not that their competition threatens our profits — which should really be a stimulus — but that the demands of efficiency will be canonised at the expense of the human values in more and more developing countries. Conservative educational policies should be directed not just to allowing more scope to schools devoted to excellence, but to a radical change in the minds and hearts of our people, most of whom are too content to suffer change rather than to shape it.