Old and Frail, but the Pope Can Still Fill Us All with Awe

Article excerpt

Byline: A.N. WILSON

THERE is a breathtakingly good moment in Dickens's novel Our Mutual Friend when the semidrowned body of Rogue Riderhood is taken out of the Thames, and friends and enemies alike hover anxiously around. "Stay! Did that eyelid tremble? So the doctor, breathing low, and closely watching, asks himself."

As the little sparks and signs of life emit themselves from the half-corpse "the four rough fellows, seeing, shed tears. Neither Riderhood in this world, nor Riderhood in the other, could draw tears from them; but a striving human soul between the two can do it easily."

The Pope is a good man, and some say a saint; Riderhood was a rogue. But you will see why the sight of the crowds, praying for this frail old body in a Rome hospital, brought the Dickens passage to mind.

By any ordinary standards of common sense, you would be able to say to them: "Come off it - this man has Parkinson's disease; he is advanced in years; he has played a decisive role in world history; he believes in life beyond the grave. Why should you wish to stretch out the agony for him by praying for his recovery?"

But sometimes common sense isn't an appropriate response to momentous events. And the passing of a Pope always is a momentous event, in the same way that the death of the British monarch fills all but the most insensitive with awe.

The Pope has had many critics, especially from within his own ranks. And, even as he was taken to hospital, church commentators were lining up the likely runners for the succession and tipping various cardinals as good bets to be the next pontiff.

Common sense, once again getting things wrong, thought this was the moment to be discussing whether popes should have a retirement age, which is a bit like our own common-sense brigade in Britain suggesting that the Queen should retire and let someone else have a go.

Having very old or very frail people occupying venerable institutions actually reminds us that there is a difference between being such a figure and having a job.

The papacy is a job in so far as it needs administration; the Pope works long hours, signs a lot of papers, and so on, in the same way that the Queen does. But the "job" aspect of his life, or of hers, is not its essential thing.

The great Western Church, stretching back in unbroken line to the 1st century, is embodied in the Primacy of the Roman See. It has sustained the Latin language, as well as many of our European laws and customs.

EVEN to those of us who neither b e long to the Roman Church nor accept its doctrines, there is something awe- inspiring about the Pope, never more so than when, rather than issuing yet another encyclical or kissing yet another stretch of Tarmac, he is simply being the Pope, something which can be done when he is so frail as to hover between one world and whatever lies beyond the veil.

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