Wanted: Jesus Christ on a good day (and more)

Written by Morris West for the Sydney Morning Herald, April 4, 2005.

The late Morris West wrote numerous novels about the Catholic Church, including The Shoes of the Fisherman. This is an edited version of an article West wrote exclusively for the Herald in 1997, to be published on the death of the Pope.

Let us pray for a man of courage

In the Society of Jesus, there is an interesting practice. When a superior’s term of office expires, his colleagues are asked to submit, in writing, a portrait of the man they think should replace him.

It’s a useful idea. The retiring candidate is given a critique of his performance and the new nominee is given a clear statement of what his colleagues expect of him.

One recent occasion elicited the wry but heartfelt comment: "What they’re looking for is Jesus Christ on a good day."

This leads, by natural progression, to the recital of a wish list to summarise the best intentions of the electors and the most urgent needs of the church.

How old a man? Hard to prescribe, isn’t it? A young and sturdy pontiff may last too long, so that the arteries of the church harden along with his own. Pope Paul VI prescribed a retiring age for cardinals and bishops. There would seem to be every good reason for a similar prescription for the supreme pontiff.

The encroachments of age and infirmity would not then create a constitutional crisis for the church, or a crisis of conscience for an ailing pontiff driven by zeal or ambition to complete his policies at all costs.

What nationality? The prescription, at first glance, is easy. Nationality is not important; we need a universal man for a universal church. Not so fast, please! The Pope is elected first and foremost as Bishop of Rome. All else hangs on that, flows from that.

The Romans, rightly, have first claim on him and they will assert it vigorously, as they have done down the centuries.

If he cannot speak their language, they will despise him, whatever his virtues. If he cannot match their subtleties and understand their history, and that of his own office, they will manipulate him shamelessly. If I were a betting man, which I am not, I would offer very long odds against another exotic like the late pontiff. A South American might be an outside bet.

So, now, we need a healer: a man of compassion. From the balcony of St Peter’s and the window of the papal apartment, he sees the vast mass of people from all nations under the sun. Their voices rise to him in a confused murmur.

It is impossible for him to distinguish their faces or to decipher the grief and hope and, sometimes, the terror in their eyes. I repeat here what I have written in another place: we need a minister, not a magistrate. We need a mediator of the great mystery.

We need a wise man, too. We need one calm in his belief. It is this calm wisdom which is the true mark of the healer.

It is the wisdom which sees and accepts the wholeness of creation; which does not seek to explain the vast mystery of it, bright and dark, but embraces it as part of the gift of life, and mediates it, lovingly.

The wise man will be an open one. He will listen and consider before he pronounces. He will recognise that language is at best an imperfect human instrument; that it changes from generation to generation, from place to place.

He will respect the risk-takers. He will encourage free inquiry and open debate on hard questions. He will put an end, forever, to secret denunciations and secret inquisitions about the orthodoxy of honest scholars. He will not stifle their questions or their speculations, but protect them in charity against detractors. It’s a big wish list.

Does such a paragon exist? Will the electors be wise enough to recognise him and choose him? Will he be willing to accept the office?

We pray that we may get a man filled with all the gifts of the Spirit.

All we can be sure of is that he will be a man of a certain age, already cast in a certain mould, honed and buffed by pastoral or curial practice. He will be a bachelor, long untrammelled by the demands of community life. He will have a confessional, but not social, practice with women. He will be accustomed to the nuances of power and the deference accorded to his rank, all of which will make him, in some degree, an idiosyncratic man. It will certainly isolate him.

The myth-makers will work on him. The masters of ceremonies will create what Robert Browning called "the rare show of Peter’s successor".

Now, I believe it is time for Peter’s new successor to speak directly to the people of God, to beg their personal support and understanding in the brute tasks which lie ahead of him. They need him desperately; he needs them, too. Without their presence, his office would have no meaning.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

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