|Illustration by |
Our aunt Marytee went to Rome to see the Pope the year that I was about 10 and she brought me back a special gift, then unique in Ireland. It was a one-inch thick flickerbook with a photo of then Pope Pius XII giving his papal blessing on every page of hundreds.
When you riffled the pages there was the optical illusion of his hands moving as he delivered a very personal blessing to the viewer. That was a very special gift to bring home to a Catholic boy in the fifties. I made the most of it.
By the end of the first week Pope Pius had delivered his blessing to the next door Orangeman neighbor Bob Armstrong, to his equally Orange farm laborer Willie Reynolds, to their housekeeper Meta Rooney, to the postman Jimmy Timoney, to a big police sergeant who had called to the house to check on my father's shotgun license (and who was visibly appalled at the sight of the Pope close up), and to any others who crossed my path.
I was a kind of Apostolic Nuncio in Fermanagh when I had possession of that flickerbook. In nearby Enniskillen at that time there were brick walls in Protestant areas bearing the slogan "No Pope," and my book gave the lie to that.
I thought of it when the news exploded across a different Ireland and the world that the current aged Pope is retiring on health and age grounds.
Our aunt "Marytee," by the way, was actually Mary. T. Bannon, a lovely and formidable schoolteacher of my mother's clan, later the mother of healthy triplets too, and one of the brave wave of Catholic travelers from this island whose expensive overseas flights in that era were always to either Lourdes or to Rome to see the Pope. Their journeys were testimony to the powerful devotion of the Irish then to the Catholic Church.
How times have changed. When the news broke of Pope Benedict's resignation many of the people of all ages I spoke to in the hours following the announcement were, yes, shocked, but also, sadly but perhaps understandably, suspicious that we were not hearing the truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Was the retirement truly only on health grounds? Was there some other factor involved we are not being told about? Is there something else that will shock and horrify us coming down the track?
There was genuine sympathy for the palpable infirmity of the 85-year old Pontiff, but also that thread of suspicion. Is that not shocking in itself in a land which was once one of the church's real heartlands? Were Marytee alive she would be shocked to the core of her spirit, and so would all her generation.
Given the recent dreadful scandals in the church over the past decade, and more and the cobweb of deceit and denial surrounding matters such as international child abuse, pedophilia and other crucial issues, the common first reaction is hardly surprising. Add to that the related fallout from a Magdalene laundries report showing convent abuse of young girls and women -- including Sinead O'Connor in her youth -- and it would be strange if there was no suspicion among those the church has always called the laity.
I myself feel, for what it is worth, that Pope Benedict is indeed retiring solely because of age and infirmity, but a more potent and transparent papacy by him during his critical term could and should have radically improved the public perception of the battered church he is leaving behind.
Not enough pruning was done publicly of the corrupted branches of the tree. It seems there is still deceit and systemized coverings-up at every level.
The church in Ireland, and across the developed world, is weaker today than when he took charge of it.
I suppose there is a great story unfolding in front of us now. There will be intense politicking by the cardinals in Byzantine shadows and Roman corridors before the white puffs of smoke emerge from the Sistine chimneypot and we hear a cardinal utter the ritual phrase, "Habemus Papem...we have a Pope."
It will be headline news on the day, but it won't matter as much as it should for so many betrayed and disappointed millions of Christians across the globe.
No schoolboy anywhere will be so touched by a flickerbook of a papal blessing as I was all those years ago, and that's for sure.