Pope John XXIV


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Chapter 1

“I think it is too late to disturb the Holy Father, Eminence.”

“I have my orders as you have yours.” The Secretary of State replied flintily and the Monsignor retreated. He must learn quickly never to offer unsolicited advice, no matter how well intended, if he was ever to become a bishop.

Cardinal Peroni secretly agreed with his assistant but he valued obedience above all other virtues, both in himself and in the Church he served. Today vows were considered little more than statements of intent but, for him, chastity and obedience were fundamental to his vocation. If only the vast army of Catholics were as diligent: even if priests could be relied upon. He shook his head as he made his way to the Papal apartment.

Sister Maria, the Pope’s minder, admitted him with ill grace. That she was aware of the Pope’s instructions made no difference. Peroni pushed past her, noting that she looked more fearsome than usual at this late hour. At one level he recognised her devotion but he found her lack of respect for all but her master irritating. Thank God there would be no women priests during his lifetime. He expressed the feeling in his elaborate closing of the door to the Pope’s chambers: the exclusion of a mere housekeeper from the centre of power.

Immediately his irritation was replaced by concern. Pius XIII was still in his chair looking frail and tired. Peroni wondered if he ever went to bed these days or whether he simply dozed and prayed. That this amazing man should be reduced to such a pitiful state seemed manifestly unjust. For a moment he had an image of the vigorous young Cardinal who had ascended to the Chair of Peter and who had subsequently chosen him to be a Prince of the Church and his Prime Minister. He made to genuflect as he always did but Pius waved him to his feet.

“Well, Stephano, what disturbance brings you here so late?”

“Holiness, I have sad news but not unexpected. Cardinal Harding died at 10.45pm this evening. He was heavily sedated and died peacefully.” He watched the Pope for a reaction: Harding’s death must remind him of his own rapidly approaching end.

Pius showed no sign of fear. He motioned to Peroni to assist him to his kneeler. “Pray with me, Stephano,” was all he said. Peroni did as ordered hoping that the Holy Father would keep his prayers short as the hour was late. A faint hope as it turned out.

At 11.00am the next day Peroni had a further meeting with Pius. He presented him with a list which the Nuncio had prepared. It contained candidates who might replace the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. Months previously Peroni had briefed the Nuncio, given him a job description. The successor to Harding was to be mildly ecumenical, staunchly traditional and acceptable to the politicians of a country which, even today, held an historic suspicion of Catholics. He had used information, to which few were privy, to amend the list prior to presentation. The Nuncio had gone through the pretext of consulting the bishops but their views were of minor significance. Subsidiarity was, to quote Peroni, “The ordering of an army by its corporals”.

“A quick announcement of the new archbishop is desirable, Holiness. You are aware that some of the bishops have been slow to speak out against lapses of the Faithful. A strong leader could do much to restore obedience.”

Pius chuckled. “Stephano, I am sure you have already decided whom I should elevate. You are simply extending a courtesy to an old and fragile Pontiff.” He laughed again and said something in the language of his youth. Several members of the Curia had observed his increasing tendency to revert to his native tongue. This gave Sister Maria greater power and was universally resented. “The Gate Keeper is a Polish peasant,” one cardinal had remarked bitterly.

“I will pray about it so that the Holy Spirit will be permitted his imprimatur.”

Later Peroni encountered Cardinal Kirst, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The two men represented the most powerful portfolios in the Vatican. Their relationship was cordial but not close.

“And how is his Holiness?” Kirst asked in his perfect Italian, product of almost half a century in Rome.

“I think he tires himself needlessly. He is still too involved in too much. He plans as though he will live forever yet all the signs are that he will be lucky to see Christmas.”

Kirst shrugged. “We have tried to relieve him of decision making but he believes in his own accountability.”

“It is a fearsome responsibility. Some of the decisions we have to take are burdensome enough but, the Holy Father.....”

Archbishop William Carterton, wearing a rainproof jacket and boots, pushed his way through the wind which came ice-cold and wet off the River Mersey. Today, as so often, the river was grey-brown and singularly uninviting. He remembered how, as a boy, he had known the river teeming with ships: the bustling docks serviced by their own overhead railway. From Liverpool you could sail to anywhere in the world and miles of working dockland laid claim to the city’s importance. Today the docks were silent, the railway scrapped and a few tiny boats plied the banks of the Mersey and the Irish Sea. Thatcher and Militant Tendency had achieved an economic devastation which the Nazi blitz had failed to accomplish.

So much had changed. As a boy he recalled the sectarian battles. The Protestant ghetto based on Netherfield Road and its Catholic equivalent based on Scotland Road. How the city had ground to a standstill each year as the Orange Lodge paraded to Exchange Station to celebrate King Billy’s victory at the Boyne. Late that night the Lodge would return from Southport, the Catholics would be waiting and battle would be joined. As children, they imitated their parents.

“Say something in Latin?” They would demand of an innocent child. Failing the test was sufficient cause for a bashing. But it was not one sided. When crossing a building site one weekend, out of nowhere, a gang of boys emerged. “Are you a Catholic?” they asked menacingly. Since lying was a sin, the young Carterton told the truth.

Somehow he had managed to crawl home. No phone, no car. A neighbour called the doctor and he arrived, smelling of whisky.

“No bones broken but he’ll have severe bruising.’ Dr Jenkins announced. “I hope you gave a good account of yourself.” Bill winced, not so much in pain as in the knowledge that he had surrendered without a fight in the hope that mercy would prevail. Jenkins misinterpreted and uttered a gruff “Well done! We’ll dress these then we’ll find the bastards.”

His mother retreated from this unprofessional display. Bill was bundled into the doctor’s car and joined by his father, just home from work. Together they combed the streets but they never did find the louts. Had they done so the two men would have administered their own brand of justice? How times had changed.

Now the prejudice and the self-reliance had long departed. Derek Worlock and David Sheppard, a Catholic and an Anglican Archbishop, had shown that the Gospel could overcome history: where bigotry was let tolerance be. He felt like a pigmy in a giant’s footsteps. He turned away from the river and walked for a while through what seemed to be a war zone. Boarded windows, businesses gone broke, litter and weeds. He had been their archbishop for five years and what had he achieved? He had inherited an archdiocese renewed and failed to maintain the momentum. A third of all births were illegitimate (to use a politically incorrect term). His priests were demoralised: one was even in prison and his cathedral had concrete cancer. New vocations were at an all-time low. The Faithful were only too faithful in their resistance to the closure of inner city churches and Catholic schools and were conspicuously unfaithful in their attendance at Mass. Congregations were divided into hostile camps, those who demanded a crusade for social justice and those who wanted a Marian shrine on every street corner. It had been known locally as the Cruel See, when presided over by John Carmel Heenan, surely it now qualified as the Dead See. Perhaps the regular catharsis of fist fights had been a vital incentive to religious practice.

Even the weather seemed violently set against hope. Theoretically it was spring but pensioners were still dying of hypothermia. As he brooded, he noticed a figure in a doorway across the street, an African woman sheltering against the cold. One of New Labour‘s asylum seekers, a Section 55 pauper. He crossed towards her and the woman cowered further back in the doorway. She probably had good reason to fear men. He wanted to reach out and touch her, make some small gesture of humanity. Instead he gave her what money he had and went on his way.

Returning to the Wigwam (as the Cathedral of Christ the King was usually known) he knelt for a long time before retiring to his study. Easter was close and his mind wandered to that first Easter: the terrible death of the saviour; Peter’s betrayal; the disarray of the disciples. He identified with Peter. His time as Archbishop had not been without its betrayals. Was what he had excused as shyness and humility more honestly described as cowardice? He looked up at the cross.

“Father forgive me. Help me to do whatever I must do.”

The depression which always lurked close began to overwhelm him. Rationally he knew that the Church everywhere was going through a period of decline: falling Mass attendance; child abuse scandals; an absence of vocations; above all a failure to communicate the ‘good news’. He recalled a young, vigorous Pope who had declared: “We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song”. Did the now aged Pope still believe his own assertion? What would the African woman have made of these words?

He despised himself for his own failure of hope. Faith and charity remained easy for him but, hope, in the present climate? Yet, if the leaders did not convey hope what chance was there for the flock? Hope came courtesy of the lottery, reality TV, symbiosis with the lives of celebrities. Jam tomorrow was no longer enough. The people hadn’t yet given up on charity, still clung to aspects of faith but, unfortunately, there were three Cardinal Virtues. Somehow he had to re-establish hope. A sense that this creaky, two millennia-old Church was not a bedridden geriatric but a still pulsating, evolving organism. This, he now realised, was not the work of a theologian but the work of a shepherd. Why had it taken him so long?

Ten days later he opened the side door to his house and admitted a rather dishevelled figure who smelled strongly of beer and who hastily discarded a cigarette.

“Good of you to come, Joe. How was the match?”

“Bloody awful! You were wise to stay away. Now if I was the manager.........sorry.....but it’s the third loss in succession.”

“I know and you’ll need a drink to console you. Jamieson’s OK on a cold night?”

Joe nodded vigorously. “And maybe just a chaser too, Bill. I think I have the ’flu coming on.”

The old friends settled companionably in front of the fire and raised their glasses. “To the next cardinal.”

Carterton laughed. “I don’t think so but I appreciate the thought.”

Joe Shelley looked annoyed. “Why ever not? You’ve got more degrees than a vice-chancellor and you are a product of the most Catholic city in England. What’s more important you played soccer for Everton.”

“Actually I had a trial for the reserves. That was as far as it got.”

“Don’t split hairs. You’re my choice anyway and if those bastards in the Curia choose anyone else I’ll slaughter them in my column.”

“Your column, Joe! That’s what I want to talk to you about. I want you to do something for me.”

Joe raised an eyebrow. “Promote your cause!”

“Not quite. Rather the reverse. I want you to do something that will put me out of the race.”

“Well I won’t do it. It’s your bloody right to go to Westminster. Harding was a good man but he was too quiet. We want a cardinal with a voice.” Shelley’s own voice trailed off and his host did not miss the significance.

“You mean I used to have a voice….a long time ago.”

Embarrassed Shelley started to object.

“Joe, it‘s no good. I’ve been doing a spot of introspection. I’ve looked back over my five years here and asked myself what have I achieved? The answer is very little.” He held up his hand as Shelley was about to interrupt. “I appreciate your unconditional support but the fact remains that I have been too timid. Partly because I’d hate to be considered a grandstander, partly because I believed that subtle pressure could produce change, partly because I didn’t want to stick my head over the parapet. Yet if I can’t speak out for the poor and voiceless I might as well resign now.”

“You’re depressed! It’s the weather. I can name half a dozen issues which you’ve influenced.”

“So can I but they’re all small beer. Now, for better or worse, I am going to say what I believe Jesus would say if he walked the streets of Liverpool and many of our other cities. I’m going to give you a copy of my Easter Sunday sermon and I want you to publish it in your column immediately afterwards. Not because I want personal publicity, but because I fear how it could be made to read if parts are taken out of context. Will you do it for me?”

“Of course. I’d be honoured.”

“Perhaps you’d better read it first. Mine may not be the only job on the line.

Shelley read rapidly and chuckled occasionally. “Well I must say you’ll manage to offend a broad cross section of the community and probably endear yourself the rest. Unfortunately the former wield power and the latter wield little except their suffering. Not that I don’t agree with you. It’s a bit lengthy for my column but I can précis it without compromising the message but it is bound to get misquoted. You can just imagine what the right wing press, which means most of them, will do with it. I can see the headlines already: the Red Archbishop, Carterton’s Communist Credo, Militant Tendency replaced by Belligerent Bishop.”

“That’s why I want you to publish first so there is a true record before any distortion begins.”

“Bill, you are a lovely man but a little naive. The Liverpool Echo doesn’t have quite the circulation or the influence of the national tabloids. What is more, the tabloids are not interested in reporting you honestly. They’ll be out to create an impression of someone who is, at best, dotty and at worst malevolent. If you plan to go ahead I think we should put the full text on the internet. Then anyone actually interested in the truth can access it unadulterated.

Archbishop William Carterton looked round his crowded cathedral. If only it was so well filled on a normal Sunday. He wondered whether his sermon would lead to a greater or lesser congregation in the future or whether, as he suspected, it would be a nine days wonder. As always, the enemy within was apathy.

“As we all know, today we celebrate the resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ. An event which is unique in history and the cornerstone of the Christian faith. As Catholics we believe that it is both a physical event and a metaphor. Today I want to speak about its metaphorical significance. There are two aspects of the metaphor, death and rising above death.

In our world we are only too familiar with death. The last century saw more needless slaughter of human life than any other century. At times I suspect we became numb through the sheer scale of slaughter and our perceived inability to affect events, often far from these shores. But there are other forms of death which are far crueller than the bomb and the bullet. I refer to death of the human spirit, to the steady erosion of hope. We live in an affluent country. We have one of the largest economies in the world, yet we see all around us manifest injustice: poverty amongst children, homelessness amongst the mentally ill, run down council housing, pensioners without heat, women forced into prostitution, refugees treated like criminals. You are as familiar as I am with the litany. Yet we have politicians who speak of their humanity and their desire to eliminate poverty and despair. A spell in a condemned flat in Dingle might challenge such hypocrisy. Bankers who tell us that we must be more productive and work harder. How many of them have worked on an assembly line night shift? Company Directors who cry that wage rises are impossible if we are to remain competitive except, of course, when it comes to their own remuneration. Bankers whose bonuses accrue from short term profits but who leave the ordinary citizen to pay for long term losses. Some would argue that we are witnessing the behaviour of a worldwide superrich, tax cheating cabal whose only allegiance is to personal greed.

History can be viewed as constant struggle between an ‘in group’ which wishes to retain power and use it to control ‘out groups’ which are often the source of the ‘in group’s’ wealth and prestige. We all know the story of Magna Carta, when the feudal lords of England took power away from the king. We also know that they did not re-direct that power to the people. In the centuries which followed the people tried to take some power for themselves. Often they were unsuccessful and many died in the process but, gradually, power was diffused. Arguably post World War II Britain, despite the huge debts incurred during the war and the need to maintain a high Cold War defence budget, was the fairest society we have ever known in these islands. Many of you in this congregation will recall the relative egalitarianism of that time but it is now no more than a memory.

We have experienced a sustained campaign to put the working man back in his place, and not just the working man. Contracts and casualisation have resulted in a workforce that fears for its employment. Men and women accept conditions which would have been unacceptable forty years ago because they live in fear. The union movement has been emasculated and marginalised. The media has ceased to be a ’free press’ and a ’free press’ is essential to make democracy work. Democratic governments have used tactics which they would have condemned as abuses of human rights if used elsewhere.

At this point a minor commotion broke out in the front pews and several people left the cathedral muttering words like ’communist’ and ’lunatic’. The Archbishop merely paused and smiled.

So what went wrong? Why do we not now enjoy a society where all share in its prosperity? Why do we allow ourselves to be controlled by people who, no matter how often they appear in the Honour’s List, whatever titles they hold or however much wealth they accumulate, bear no higher loyalty than to their own preferment? The answer, I fear, is because you and I have failed to speak out and to act. We have been asleep on our watch. We have been too busy becoming respectable. There is even seductive talk now that the Act of Succession should be amended to allow for a Catholic to rule the United Kingdom. To some that may seem as though the Catholic Church in England has come of age. In one sense I believe it tells us that we have sold our soul.”

Yes, my friends we have become respectable. Yet the man whose resurrection we celebrate today died because he refused to become respectable. A few well-chosen words to the Sanhedrin, a blind eye to hypocrisy, a retraction of the Sermon on the Mount and he could have been a powerful rabbi in Jerusalem. He paid a price far higher than you or I are likely to pay and he did it for love of those who will continue to betray the ideals for which he stood and for which he still stands. We can conspire with his crucifiers if we choose to ignore the wrongs we see all around us. We can participate in his resurrection if we choose to do something about them.

You would not be human if you did not charge me with hypocrisy. I live in a nice house. I have a housekeeper. I eat well. People largely treat me with respect. I have no family whose welfare I may jeopardise by talking sedition. I cannot be as vulnerable as many of you are but, to the extent that I can live less opulently, I intend to do so. I should have done so long ago. As of Easter Monday I shall vacate Archbishop’s House and I will move to the presbytery attached to St Kevin’s Church. Fr Nolan has been kind enough to offer me a home and it will do me no harm to return to the realities of parish life. I have made separate provision for my staff and they will not be accompanying me. I will continue to serve as your Archbishop for as long as I am permitted to do so or for so long as I feel I have something to offer you.

I hope you will take my words today to your hearts and consider what contribution you may be able to make to ensure that we do build a New Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. And remember, the apostles were not without fear despite the knowledge of the Son of God in their midst.

Essentially I am encouraging you to embark on a crusade. Not a crusade which aims to conquer land but a crusade which aims to conquer the fear we feel when we dare to challenge power which is being misused. Recall the apostles on Lake Galilee when Jesus walked towards them on the water and his words ‘Fear not, it is I’. Let us bear those words in mind for if we act in a truly Christian manner, he will be with us.

May God bless you all and a very happy Easter.

For a moment the cathedral was silent, and then the applause started. Spasmodic at first for it is not the Catholic tradition to applaud sermons. Then it grew and stifled completely the angry voices of dissent as perhaps a tenth of the congregation departed in disgust. Carterton returned to the altar, weak at the knees and light headed. A terrible realisation dawned. He felt that he had started something without any idea of where to go next. He had anticipated that a few people would respond in some way, expand the social justice group and develop from there. What he had unearthed was far more visceral. Why, he wondered, did he not use the word exciting? He knew he was a victim of the very fear of which he had spoken. Sacrificing his house for a bed sitter at St Kevin’s was going to be the easy part of his transition. Just for a moment he hoped the Curia would hear of his outspokenness, sack him and he could return to academe. He looked up at the crucifix and asked for forgiveness.

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