Friday, 9 October 2015

Humble pope teaches us all a lesson to remember - my 2 October Catholic Universe column

I’ll never forget Sunday 30 May 1982.

The whole parish had disencamped from our Leicestershire home for the historic visit of Pope John Paul II to Coventry Airport. The fever of that trip was especially heightened for us primary school children as our gentle and fatherly headmaster Peter Skoyles was at that time one of the very few permanent deacons in the country and he would be assisting the Holy Father with mass that day. The flags and rosettes had been purchased and the Ladybird book chronicling the life of Karol Wojtyla virtually memorised. The excitement in our parish was palpable.

And I missed the whole lot after being diagnosed with German measles two days earlier.
The visit of His Holiness back in 1982 was unprecedented and sadly, it seems to me at least, by the time Pope Benedict made his own state visit to Britain 28 years later much of that earlier excitement and fervour had been lost.

Watching the television over the past week though and seeing crowds clamouring for a sight of Pope Francis on his trip to Cuba and the United States has filled me with hope.

To see thousands upon thousands lining the streets of New York has been inspirational.
To watch His Holiness arriving at the White House in a humble Fiat 500 marks out, when countless others would have turned up in luxury limousines, his humility. It can’t have been bad for the Italian motor industry either.

Every time we hear Pope Francis speak it’s a reminder to us of the biblical messages of charity, subsidiarity and good stewardship for our earth and its peoples. Every time I hear his message it fills me with hope for the future of the Catholic Church and our planet.

In a world where the President of the United States is often seen as its undisputed leader, and where prime ministers and other heads of state seek to visit him, it is a mark of the regard that the Holy Father is held in that President Obama and his family went to greet Pope Francis at the airport as he touched down at Andrews Air Force Base on his flight from Cuba.

Of course whilst most are delighted at the visit of His Holiness not all Americans are entirely enamoured by the message he preaches. Amongst the wall to wall press coverage of each engagement some commentators, particularly on the Republican right are questioning whether the Pope is left wing, or even a Communist?

In what has become one of the soundbites of his visit one journalist asked him if he was ‘a little to the left’. His Holiness’ answer was beautiful in its simplicity and yet strikes to the heart of political differences ‘My doctrine is that of the social doctrine of the Church.’

Catholic politicians will often seek to argue that their views are compatible with biblical teaching. Indeed at least six of the current crop of potential Republican candidates for the Presidency will spend a great deal of time doing just that but the beauty of Pope Francis is the clarity of his message, the lack of room for interpretation.

Perhaps the highlight of Pope Francis’ diplomatic engagements during his visit has been his address to a joint meeting of Congress, the first time a pontiff has been invited to deliver such a speech.

His Holiness’ address was undoubtedly a much needed reminder to politicians of all persuasions, not just in the United States but across the globe, of their true purpose.

Speaking directly to members of Congress Pope Francis said ‘You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy commons needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.’

I would venture to say that virtually every politician enters public life seeking to fulfil that vocation that His Holiness clearly enunciates. The problem is that in the face of political opponents espousing strident views we all too often forget.

Just such an occasion happened to me this week.

It is no secret that despite being a Labour Party councillor I am not a great fan of our new leader, I believe he is wrong for the party and wrong for our country.

There are many Labour members who vehemently disagree with me, probably right now the majority. Many will contact me on social networking sites to tell me their forthright views and question, despite the fact that I have voted Labour my whole life, whether I am in the wrong party or perhaps invite me in usually derogatory terms to join the Conservatives.

It was precisely during one such interaction that I completely forgot the message of Pope Francis and called members of the far left of my party ‘loons’.

I had in simple terms forgotten my vocation and instead got drawn in to name calling. I hope fortunately for me and without causing too much offence I quickly remembered why any of us enter politics and apologised for any harm I may have caused.

Of course Mr Corbyn isn’t a lunatic. I may disagree with him on a great many issues but he is genuine and seeks to improve our nation in a considered way shared by many others.

A second event occurred this week which caused me to consider the Pope Francis’ words.

At a meeting of Leicestershire County Council my Labour colleagues had tabled a genuine motion regarding how we in the county could provide assistance to Syrian refugees, the need to be at the forefront of providing support and showing community leadership to local residents that such action was not only necessary but desirable.

I honestly believe virtually every member of the Council held broadly similar views that those in desperate need should be provided support. No one was a million miles away from the sentiment of our motion and yet somehow the issue became one of party politics and sniping across the chamber.

In drifting to party allegiances and age old enmities we forgot our vocation.

I don’t particularly highlight my Council as being better or worse than others or indeed better or worse than national governments. We simply forgot our purpose.

Sometimes all of us need to be reminded by someone on the outside what our vocation, our life, is all about.

That is exactly what Pope Francis has set about doing in his words and his example.

I’m very humbled by such a teacher, someone who I firmly believe can lead not just politicians but all of us to a better life, we must do our best to follow him. 

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