Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

How we paint ourselves into a corner of our own creation

Pope Francis kneels to wash the feet of 12 elderly and disabled people in a Holy Thursday ritual (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)
Pope Francis kneels to wash the feet of 12 elderly and disabled people in a Holy Thursday ritual (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

A Catholic friend of mine, who believes that he might become a humanist, said to me recently: " You are a bit hard on the Pope."

I disagreed with him, and pointed out that I was being merely realistic.

Pope Francis is a charming man, but he has had little time to deal significantly with the foul mess of clerical child sex abuse worldwide, and the intransigence of powerful forces in the Vatican who are prepared to put their own interests before that of the church.

Nevertheless I felt a great sympathy for Francis when I saw him on television recently in an off-guarded moment.

He had taken off his white Papal biretta, he was slumped in an ornate chair and he looked like a vulnerable and elderly man who had too much to do, and too little time in which to do it.

Certainly he will not be too bothered about the speculation that he might come to Northern Ireland, but the remarks of our First Minister Peter Robinson on that possibility reminded me of the terrible tangle between religion and politics in this far-flung corner of Europe.

I could almost hear Mr Robinson's brain whirring as he tried to answer a reporter's simple question: "Would you meet the Pope?"

Before he answered, the First Minister had to take into account three things: the reaction of his words on the Catholics of Northern Ireland; the reaction of the Protestants including his unionist constituents in east Belfast; and also the actions of the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness when he obeyed all the rules of protocol during the Queen's banquet for President Higgins at Windsor Castle.

In the event Mr Robinson produced a classic two-dimensional answer.

If the Pope came here as part of a State visit, he would meet him, but if it was a purely pastoral visit, that would be a different matter.

The First Minister reminded me of a former Presbyterian Moderator, the Very Reverend Dr Norman Hamilton.

He swithered when he was asked if he would meet Pope Benedict during his visit to London.

Dr Hamilton, a very decent man, said he would attend the ecumenical service for the then Pope in Westminster Abbey, but that he would not necessarily meet him at a reception afterwards.

I had some sympathy for Dr Hamilton who was replying to a question from the BBC radio presenter William Crawley, as he stood under a tree in Africa during a moderatorial visit.

It is not easy to reply to some of Crawley's 'live' questions in the comfort of a studio, but I felt that the Moderator's layered answer ended up by pleasing no one, and lost him credibility.

Sometimes I long for public figures like the First Minister or a Protestant Church leader here to say out loud: "Yes, I'll certainly shake hands with the Pope because he represents Catholics in Northern Ireland, as well as millions of other Christians throughout the world."

Sadly, however, life in Northern Ireland is not as simple as that, and daily we paint ourselves into corners of our own creation.

Contrary to some people, I believe that Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are excellent politicians who are hampered by much dead wood around and beneath them, and that they are doing their best for all of us.

At this Easter time we could also ask if the churches could give greater and more courageous leadership here, and risk a bit more crucifixion in the hope of a greater resurrection.

Sadly, we are all still dancing on the head of a pointless religious/ political pin, while the big world continues to pass us by.

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