Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

A golden opportunity for papal garage sale

The Catholic Church has been in crisis for so long, marred by so much controversy, I can hardly remember a time when I felt proud to be part of its congregation.

 I was brought up in the strictest and most devout environment. School was an exclusive Catholic convent so most of my teachers were nuns and priests. Mass, prayers and hymns were part of our daily routine and everyone I knew was part of the same community. Religion was a way of life and our lives revolved around the church. It was just the way things were, something you just didn't question.

But as I grew older, moved out into the big world and began a life of my own choosing, I began to question it anyway and the answers weren't very pleasant. I estimated that in my lifetime I had known personally about 12 priests. Of those 12, three had subsequently been forced to leave the church as a result of sex scandals. One was even banged up in prison serving time as a paedophile.

I hated the fact that its leaders preached humility and poverty and yet delivered these sermons from a gold-encrusted throne in one of the wealthiest enclaves in the world.

I imagined that my patron saint, St Francis of Assisi, would be horrified if he was alive today. His message of unconditional love for the poor, the sick, the young and the old and a respect for all God's creatures seemed to have been forgotten a long time ago under the weight of doctrine and the laying down of rigid rules. Rules that were so exclusive and divisive that even the church leaders themselves had trouble defending or adhering to them.

By the time Pope Benedict was elected I had given up completely. In fact, I seriously doubted it would have been possible to find someone more instantly and instinctively unlikeable than Joseph Ratzinger. His shady Nazi Youth past, his love of pomp and ceremony and his wholehearted embrace of all the trappings of the Vatican's wealth just about killed off any respect I might have had for the church. Seriously, what's not to dislike?

Not to mention the fact that he looked like a cross between the evil Dark Lord Sith from Star Wars and

an archetypal Bond villain. All that was missing was the purring cat in a diamond collar on his lap.

My mum always told me “Following a faith shouldn't be about personalities. You don't have to like the messenger in order to love the message”.

But this geezer really did stretch that philosophy to the very limit. No wonder people were abandoning the church in their droves.

But then just when it all seemed too bad to be true, a few hundred more scandals later, something wonderful happened. Darth Sidious XIV returned to the Dark Side and a new Pope was elected.

The fact that Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose to name himself after St Francis of Assisi certainly seems to herald a hopeful new start. From the outset he has made it clear that, just like his namesake, he will champion the poor and represent the underprivileged. His air of humility and his rejection of certain formalities — including wearing the priceless gold-encrusted vestments so favoured by his predecessor — does seem to indicate that he plans to practise what he preaches.

I for one feel glad that the papacy has at last been awarded to someone who seems genuinely good, humble and genuine.

Now there's just the small matter of the Vatican's wealth. The most recent estimates suggested that this was in the region of between $10bn to $15bn at the very least. Of this wealth, Italian stockholdings run to $1.6bn, 15% of the value of listed shares on the Italian market.

If Francis is to revolutionise the Catholic church by rejecting its love of riches and wealth then I'm looking forward to seeing how he goes about this in practical terms. I'm just hoping that one of his first moves is to sell off all that pointless, antiquated gold treasure accumulated over millennia and put the money raised where it is truly needed. Namely, converting the opulent and precious into alms for the poor.

And my God that would be one hell of a garage sale, wouldn't it? Buy One Get One Free on all solid gold chalices? A third off all thuribles? Alabaster altars whilst stocks last?

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