The Pope with something to say

Thousands Welcome Pope to SydneyTo spell out the difference between Protestant and Catholic Christians people make jokes, write books, create aphorisms. Most of them are pretty unhelpful. But one of the more thought-provoking is the insight that Protestantism is a religion of the ear, whereas Catholicism is a religion of the eye.

It catches the emphasis that Luther put on hearing the Word as against the emphasis of Catholics on the sacraments and tabernacle, the austerity of Protestant churches as against the rich decoration in Catholic ones, and even the strikingly different media images of the two Sydney Archbishops: Cardinal Pell in full robes and Archbishop Jensen in suit and tie. Food for thought, but further thought soon reveals that the contrast soon breaks down.

Against that background it is intriguing that, when young people talk of World Youth Day, they commonly say that they are going to hear Pope Benedict. At previous World Youth Days they spoke of going to see John Paul II.

Does this mean that in being heard rather than seen Benedict is shaping up as a Protestant Pope? That would really stretch credulity. The change is of everyday significance. It reflects the differing personal style of the two Popes that the young people have caught.

The previous Pope had an instinctive feel for an audience and an occasion. He was a media performer, a Pope for television. Even though what he said was often deep, his speaking was theatre and what he said was declaratory. So people went to see him speak.

Benedict is a scholar and a naturally reserved man. Public performance comes less easily to him. He has a care for words and argument, and many Western readers find him easier to understand than his predecessor. For all his taste for colourful and ancient clothing, he is perhaps a Pope for radio.

In his intellectual style, too, Pope Benedict belongs to the university, to a world where different positions can be heard, argued and evaluated. Even his sermons are conversational in the sense that his imagery allows each reader to appropriate what is said in a personal way. He is a man whom we might go to hear speak.

Underlying the personal differences, however, is a different Papal style. Pope John Paul inherited a Polish history whose decisive encounters with the West were with the medieval church. The Pope was at the centre both of political and of church unity. After the Reformation the central focus on the Pope became stronger even as his political role diminished. The Pope was the universal face of the Church. Pope John Paul II enacted this role especially in his journeys. Wherever he went he often described himself to the people as 'your Pope'.

Pope Benedict comes from Bavaria, whose Christian beginnings in the fourth century are still a living memory. His history and his studies make him at home in an earlier church where the Bishop of Rome had a central place in guaranteeing the unity of the Church, but was placed within a network of significant Churches each of which claimed foundation by the Apostles and each of which had its own tradition. A central task of the Pope was to encourage and to strengthen the local Churches.

These subtle differences of personal and papal style may help explain why the present Pope, despite the fears stirred by his media image as 'God's enforcer' when Prefect of the Congregation for the Defence of the Faith, has seemed a more eirenical figure within the Church than was his predecessor. Certainly many tensions and conflicts about what it means for the Church to be faithful to the Gospel remain. But the conversation about them is not as fraught.

World Youth Day is a celebration for young Catholics. But it is also a theatrical event whose climax is the Papal Mass. There the Pope is on show to gather the whole event together. Whether pilgrims came to see or hear the Pope, they will take home the memory of being there, of seeing and hearing.

But the depth of their experience will depend on the quality of conversation that the event generates, the sense that as well as hearing they have been heard. Both active and passive voices are important in Popes.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.


Topic tags: World Youth Day, pope benedict, pope john paul II, pilgrims



submit a comment

Existing comments

I loved John Paul II and I thought I knew him even though we had never met. I have struggled to come to know Benedict in the same way. Your article has helped me come to a better understanding of him. Benedict's background is quite different but their faith is the same.
John Morgan | 17 July 2008

I had wondered if WYD would survive the transition to a Pope with such a different personal style to the one who created the event. Perhaps a Pope for radio can also be a Pope for podcast?
Sandie Cornish | 17 July 2008

Your observations are interesting but I am yet to be convinced that he is living in the same world as the rest of us ... surrounded as he is by huge numbers of clergy and throngs of "adoring' faithful ... does anyone tell him about the real picture ... the real frustrations ... the real world?
Fr. Timmins | 17 July 2008

There is something in what is presented here. However, Pope Benedict XVI remains accessible in his writing, even when scholarly. Look at his book on Jesus which at first blush seems a rehash, but which in reality is the profound fruit of reflective meditation. At times it reflects a Damascus experience to be shared.
raymond lamerand | 17 July 2008

I believe sincerely that our religion safeguards us the dissemination of The Holy Spirit to select exactly the right man for this holy office to meet the needs of the time. Of course, there have been some "failures" with the anti-popes in history, but the less said about this the better!

Born and baptised in 1960, my generation was crying out for the stability of John Paul II and his great ability to transmit Christ's message.

In a world where computers and mobile phones have taken the place of books and other methods of transmitting truth, I publicly rejoiced when Benedict XVI was elected to be our universal pastor. He gives me such hope for the Restoration of our faith which the children of my generation have sometimes ignored, and is putting his foot down intellectually to rectify some of the rampant abuses that have been, and are still practrised, by some priests, religious and even bishops of my generation in what they thought would make our religion more "meaningful".

Truth is always meaningful and the three great marks of our great faith which civilised the Western world, convince me that while the other Christian denominations may have much to offer, including the Parson Jensen's, they have nothing of the unity and strength and effectiveness to all of humanity that our Holy Church has had, and please God, with such a remarkable intellectual leader reigning for as many years as possible, will continue to have a remarkable impact on our world. I pray for him daily and hope that more of our world's bishops will read the writing on the wall and embrace his restoration of genuine holiness.
Brent Egan | 17 July 2008

I thought you might like the reference to the ear!
Kate | 17 July 2008

St Basil the Great wrote that 'we know our God from his energies...God exists in his energies, and therefore grace is not merely a gift or an object God bestows, but it is himself communicating himself in his energies.' 'Moral miracles' that
manifest as unexplained restorations to health, sudden reconciliations of conflict or even rain-free wedding days after prayerful supplication are evidence of God's energies, that is of our God communicating himself.
Claude Rigney | 24 July 2008


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up