Jim Carr is a pharmacist in Dublin.
When Pope John Paul II came to visit my home town of Drogheda in 1979, the town, like the rest of Ireland, came to a standstill. In that unique moment, our still-young republic was united as never before in celebration and pride. Everyone, it seemed, was going to see the Pope. Everyone except me. On the cusp of my third birthday, it was deemed that my tiny legs were unequal to the 5km hike to the Mass site on the edge of town (or perhaps it was felt that the cacophonous wailings of a turbulent toddler might be construed as a precocious attempt to ‘protest the pope’?!). And so I missed out on the chance to say: ‘I was there’.
Almost exactly thirty-one years later, in September 2010, in different towns, a different country, and an utterly changed world, I finally got the chance to say ‘I was there’ when I saw Pope Benedict in Edinburgh and London. In 2009, I had commenced a PhD in theology addressing the problem of reconciling religious faith with modern democracy and one of the pivotal thinkers in my research was one Joseph Ratzinger. Needless to say, I was a wee bit excited to see one of my heroes in the flesh! But more than this, I was enthralled by the bracing clarity and challenging profundity of his various speeches and homilies, above all his address to civic leaders at Westminster Hall on September 17th. And yet, however inspiring these words were, my abiding memories of the visit are visual: Benedict beaming gently among the children at St. Mary’s, Twickenham; his delighted smile on meeting Paschal Uche on the Piazza at Westminster Cathedral; the elderly Pontiff visiting people his own age at the nursing home in Vauxhall; the lovely warmth in his embrace of the Archbishop of Canterbury at Westminster Abbey. But the stand-out event for me was the prayer vigil in Hyde Park (I can still hear the hauntingly beautiful performance of ‘Lead Kindly Light’ and ‘Adoramus te Domine’!) And the crowning glory of the vigil was the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and the image of the Holy Father knelt in serene prayer. Spine-tingling stuff!
One of the reasons that Benedict came to England in 2010 was to show his esteem for John Henry Newman whose beatification at Cofton Park marked the end of the Papal Visit. Newman was a major figure both in the development of modern Catholicism and in the personal theological development of Benedict himself. Indeed, the two men had much in common. Newman’s life spanned almost the entirety of the turbulent nineteenth century; Benedict has lived through the traumas of the twentieth century. Newman’s theology had a profound influence on both Anglicanism and Catholicism. Benedict, very much an heir to Newman’s legacy, helped ensure its full flowering at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and was indefatigable in championing fidelity to that Council over the last fifty years. And just as Newman, after his conversion, suffered, for a time, estrangement from his dear Anglican friends, so Benedict has endured rejection, and at times vilifcation, from friends with whom, at one stage, he worked closely to help renew the Church. Newman is still revered by educationists for the profound and holistic conception of education elaborated in his ‘Idea of a University’. Benedict articulated a similar Christian humanism that offers a beautiful and transformative vision of human flourishing. At the heart of this vision is education, understood as the humble, patient, pursuit of truth. And like Newman, Benedict, shy in person, firm in debate, was always respectful of those with whom he disagreed.
Maybe Benedict didn’t have the same charisma that John Paul II had. But there are different types of charisma. There are many ways to inspire. Benedict was, and continues to be, an inspiration to me. When I find myself sliding into the indecision of relativism, he reminds me that there is indeed such as thing as Truth and it is found in a personal encounter with Christ. When I find myself becoming satisfied with myself, he rouses me from my complacency and reminds me that we are all called to be saints. And when my spirits are low and I become discouraged, he reminds me that God is Love and He loves me more than I can ever imagine. I miss Benedict and as I pray for Pope Francis in his daunting ministry, I also pray in a special way that God will bless the humble Bavarian whose life of service, courage and love will be remembered with fervent gratitude by many generations to come.