The Big Reformation

The papacy appears one of the loneliest of the world’s great offices.

The holder, by definition, does not have a spouse or children to brighten old age and ecclesiastical politics can be every bit as Machiavellian as the skullduggery which takes place in the darkest of Westminster’s corridors.

Any semblance of private life evaporates when someone is chosen as the leader of the world’s largest denomination, and the Pope must even shed his own name.

The arrival of Benedict XVI on the world stage necessitated the exit of Joseph Ratzinger. A sharp-minded, duelling, frequently fascinating but quite uncuddly theologian suddenly had to step into the shoes of Pope John Paul II.

His predecessor had Ronald Reagan’s knack at spotting a photo-op but it is fair to say 83-year-old Benedict XVI is not the man Simon Cowell would choose for such a public role.

When behind the walls of the Vatican or the barriers of a security cordon, he may well nod in agreement at Mother Teresa’s observation that “the most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”

He has also had to say goodbye to the freedom he once had to challenge ideas with provocative, intellectually pugilistic prose. A careless phrase can set off riots around the world and put the lives of Catholics and other Christians at risk.

And yet he is at the head of a church – into which more than a billion people have been baptised – that needs leadership and is beset by crises. It is a global organisation which, when at its best, sees both the millionaires of Wall St and orphans of Calcutta neither as shareholders nor customers but as created beings of eternal significance.

Ratzinger made his reputation with his 1968 classic An Introduction to Christianity. Written at a time when Maoists and Marxists were jostling for prominence in university movements, it declared: “[The] Christian message is basically nothing else than the transmission of the testimony that love has managed to break through death here and thus has transformed fundamentally the situation of all of us.”

Amid the exhausting pomp of state visits and the grinding horror of successive scandals, can this elderly man escape the isolation of his office and work to reform and redeem his institution so it can transmit hope?

In this final act of a tumultuous life he may find courage and inspiration. As he said in his 1968 book: “Loneliness is indubitably one of the basic roots from which man's encounter with God has risen.”

He has seen Europe’s people of faith confront Nazism and Stalinism and he now has the challenge of tackling abuse in a work of reformation which could result in deep and lasting renewal.

A Saturday column

Postscript! Saw this in London on Tuesday.