Michael Kelly: Pope’s message too hard for most

‘THE Pope is not the Church”, was how our parish priest opened his sermon on Sunday. Non-Catholics could be forgiven for thinking otherwise given the media’s obsession with the abdication of Benedict XVI, the glamorous ceremony that surrounded the election of his successor and the ecstatic welcome he was given in St Peter’s Square.

But informed Catholics are in no doubt that their roles, though very different, are equally important in the life and health of the Church. They know from their catechism what to do and what not to do. Paradoxically, the Pope’s voice may have more impact in the wider world, looking for moral certainty amid widespread confusion.

Only the minority who have sought to saddle the new Pope with the responsibility for the wrongs of the totalitarian regimes under which he had to work in Argentina would deny that he has got off to a good start.

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His choice of the name Francis was good politics. Keeping the Italians on side is always a smart thing to do. More importantly choosing the name of a saint whose image is known well beyond the Catholic Church allowed him to make his first impact with the rest of Christianity. But those looking for an easy ride should beware of the popular picture of birds and little animals surrounding the man from Assisi. Well-to-do, he gave up all worldly goods to follow Christ in the plain brown cloth that came to be the habit of the order of monks he founded. He nursed the most contagious of the sick and ended his life as a hermit.

Follow that. Because that is the message that Pope Francis has conveyed by his choice of name. He preached it when he was crowned this week. The welcome words “tenderness”, and “concern for the poorest, the weakest, the least important” are an invitation to put the caring of Christ back to the top of the Catholic agenda. In lay terms it can be summed up as care for the community.

What should not be read into his message is any intention to change the teaching of the Church on faith and morals. Unless scientists can come up with persuasive evidence that life does not begin at conception, then total opposition to abortion will remain.

As for gay marriage, it was the Free Church not the Pope that this week highlighted to absurdity of this concept. They were spot on to suggest that the Scottish Government’s plans to establish “belief” ceremonies showed the proposal to be “completely nonsensical”. The legal definition of marriage may be changed but the nature of the institution cannot be. Allowing Jedi Knights to wed people indicates the farce that this issue has become. Jedi Knights are not a religion, and a union between same-sex couples is not a marriage. The Pope might moderate the Church’s tone, but the position will remain the same. Any vacillation on these issues would destroy the Church’s authority in the same way as the ambivalence of the Church of Scotland is tearing it apart.

Christianity is a tough faith to follow. It is with difficulty that one can reconcile the image of a loving God with the pain and suffering He allows in the world. Many a philosopher, including especially CS Lewis, the children’s author, has struggled with this anomaly and has come up with answers. All of those writers who struggled with the anomaly, however, were believers starting with the assumption that God exists and is good.

For the rest of us, that’s where faith comes in. Don’t think about it, because you cannot think like God. Just believe it. A position which appears not very satisfactory in a secular and scientific world.

But that’s what the Church expects of the faithful. And it is that blind faith that the Pope is calling upon. Given that you all believe that leading a good life guarantees Heaven, no sacrifice is great enough.

Many Catholics may not yet have realised what the Pope’s message will mean for their individual lives. Will the cardinal, who lived in a small flat in Buenos Aires and took public transport to visit the poor, be content to see his subordinates continue to live in palaces and travel first-class?

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The Church in Scotland could be the first to follow his example. It is possible to live an ascetic life surrounded by affluence, but wouldn’t it be Christ-like for Glasgow’s former archbishop and the incumbent to sell their mansions, give to the poor and good and live in Easterhouse and Castlemilk? Can they give a good reason why not? That would surely inspire the priests of the diocese to give up their luxury accommodation and move to similarly humble surroundings. And what of all the other buildings and land that the Church owns throughout Scotland? Most of the churches are half-empty. Should that portfolio not be rationalised and the funds used for social work here and in the desperately poor areas of Africa?

Of course, it is easy to point to actions that the clergy should take. But the Pope’s message applies equally to the laity. Most ordinary Catholics are content to attend Mass most Sundays and leave it at that. All but a tiny few actively participate in the work of the Church. Most are as obsessed as the most confirmed atheist with enjoying the “here and now”. The acquisition of material goods is no less hotly pursued in Christian households.

Who among us is going to move to a smaller house, forego a second, far less a first, car, reduce the number of TVs in the home, take only one foreign holiday a year and put the money in the poor box? Who is going to spend leisure time working in a soup kitchen for the homeless or in a hostel for drug addicts? Who is willing to spend a year in the developing world caring for AIDS victims?

As an academic, I can make all the arguments. But my first reaction to a personal appeal is to suggest from the hardness of my heart that you carry on and I will catch up later. The Pope’s message, though delivered with a gentle touch, may be too tough for most of us.