In the next hour or two, the Pope will pass within a few hundred metres of my house. I’m staying well away. I am no fan of Ratzinger/Benedict. As a highly intelligent young man, he was one of the architects of Vatican II which sought to change both the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church for the better. A few years later he must have had some kind of unfortunate ‘conversion’ experience because he has spent his life since trying to reverse everything that Vatican II might have achieved.
To an extent, he is more transparent that Pope John Paul II. JP II was an arch-conservative, but he was good with the public, so people tended to overlook the rigidity of his views. Benedict hasn’t a PR bone in his body, so what you see is what you get. On the other hand, JP II was very probably a compassionate, decent man in practice, despite his increasingly dogmatic views. Words like ‘calculating’, ‘ambitious’, ‘two-faced’ and ‘downright nasty’ could never have been fairly applied to him, but they don’t seem inappropriate for Benedict. It is shocking, of course, that someone who is supposed to represent Jesus might be associated with such words, but there is plenty of historical precedent for it.
On the ground, I am a committed ecumenist. It’s important to overlook the idiocy of leaders. Just as Americans were not all George W. Bush, so not all Roman Catholics, priests, and bishops are Pope Benedict. I don’t have any problem with him visiting the UK and couldn’t care less whether it’s counted as a state visit or not. The UK Government entertains many even more unsavoury characters, and my taxes pay for them whether I like it or not. But I do wish the RC Church would take a liberal turn in the near future, after Benedict has gone. Leonardo Boff, liberation theologian who was a thorn in the Vatican's side for many years (and has now left the RC Church), wrote on Ratzinger's accession to Pope in April 2005 - "I believe in miracles. Let's hope Benedict XVI becomes again the theologian I used to respect, who elicited hope, not fear." Sadly, the miracle hasn't happened yet...
Anyway, this is the poem I wrote the day Ratzinger was elected Pope, published in the now unavailable The Clown of Natural Sorrow:
The bell tolls. I slop my hair in shampoo.
On the radio Ratzinger breathes Latin like a bell
tolling. The letterbox clicks like a book snapped
shut. Blessed art thou, mother of God. An envelope
greys the welcome rug, the scrape of my name
in fading ink. Abortion a grave and sinful
mistake. Kate’s sloping script. ‘Papa Ratzi,’ a DJ sniggers
at his own wit. The time and date for the funeral,
the child’s name. Last scraps of Catholic hope. No
flowers. Donations to the hospital please. I shape my hair
with wax. Bells and smoke. The umbilical rope round
the tiny neck. The Pope is dead. Long live the Pope.