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At breaking point

19 July 2013


ONE of the minor pleasures of this job is tracking the usage of the phrase "devout Christian". It usually means "total weirdo", and I don't think it will be easy to top a story I found in the Daily Mail about a primary-school headmaster who had a breakdown.

"The pupils of Horsmonden Primary School in Kent . . . watched open-mouthed as their headmaster 'snapped' when the electronic organ he was trying to play refused to work. Enraged, Malcolm Hayes smashed and punched the keyboard before wrenching it off its stand and telling his pupils to follow him as he stormed outside.

"Once in the car park the 49-year-old, a devout Christian [my italics], smashed the instrument again - before jumping in his car and repeatedly driving over it."

It turns out that Mr Hayes has previous form in the Mail, after he left his wife for a 16-year-old foster-daughter ten years ago. It appears that this second wife has now left him, which is why he took his frustrations out on the school's instrument, even if that's not the organ that had been giving him trouble.

NOW, as it happened, I spent part of last week advising a group of clergy in County Durham about how to deal with the media, and this scenario did not once come up.

It turned out that many of them were frightened of dealing with the media, and suspicious of the result, but what they had in mind was a catastrophe such as being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman rather than anything more likely. So it was interesting to explain to them that the local media really don't try to pick holes in your stories. The difficulty is getting them to listen at all.

RIGHT up at the other end of the business, there was a wonderful piece by Garry Wills in the New York Review of Books blog, on the way in which both Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII are to be made saints, as if to keep the party balance in heaven.

"Though John Paul II is not as hotly resented by liberals as Pius IX, he is still subject to deep criticism. He presided over the Church during its worldwide pedophile scandal, and he gave the handling of that problem to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith - the very man who, succeeding him, would waive the time-lapse needed to begin his predecessor's canonization. (Who can think that a saint in heaven ever protec-ted a predatory priest?) John Paul had treated as 'irreversible' his stands on matters such as homosexuality, married priests, and women priests. He is a symbol, for some people, of things that need remedy in the Church.

"But - not to worry - the 'good Pope John' is again being pressed into service. He was beatified to take the sting out of Pius IX's promotion. He is now being canonized to make a joint heavenly pair with John Paul II. To rush John XXIII forward, Pope Francis is even waiving the normal requirement of a second miracle for canonization. John XXIII is the feel-good pope in a time of turmoil, even though he is being used to sanction the turmoil caused by John Paul II."

Wills does not stop with those points, which were all fairly obvious, and made by a number of commentators. His deeper and sharper criticism is of the way in which the canonisation process strengthens, by its nature, the authority of the Pope who performs it. It is the Pope, and the Pope alone, who certifies, in the last analysis, whether a miracle is authentic. It is the Pope who here has the power to declare what is going on in heaven - that such and such a one of his predecessors is hearing the prayers of the faithful and is well-placed to intercede for them. This is the vision of heaven as a gigantic bureaucracy, not entirely unlike the Vatican, where sainthood is a senior and influential rank, and where the Pope, on earth, is the all-powerful spokesman who can discount all unauthorised leaks.

This is perhaps best read in conjunction with a piece by the Vaticanologist John Thavis, who quotes Pope Francis as saying that he is still living in the Vatican guest house so as to avoid being dominated by his staff and, especially, his secretaries.

Wills concludes: "It is a bit sad to see Pope Francis, who has been doing wonderful things in his short time at the Vatican, play the old game of self-certification at the top of a saint-making factory. Many hope he will make needed changes in the Church. But in promoting John Paul II he is exalting a man who fought every one of those changes."

It will be fascinating to see how that plays out. More interesting than any of the upcoming rumbles at Lambeth Palace.

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