Too Little - Too Late?

by Tony Leather

March 2000 will be remembered as a groundbreaking month for the Catholic Church. A month in which His Holiness, Pope John Paul II asked the world for forgiveness for the past mistakes of the church he heads. A month in which he visited the Middle East for the first time, making a pilgrimage to the most sacred sites if Christianity and the third most holy of Islam.

On March 23rd, in Jerusalem, he's reported to have said - 'I fervently pray that our sorrow for the tragedy suffered by the Jewish people in the twentieth century will lead to a new relationship between Christians and Jews.' A difficult ambition, when those in the middle east still remember the Crusades of 1095, when Pope Urban II wanted to re-conquer the Holy Land.

Not only Jews, but Christians and Muslims also fell beneath the swords of the invaders. It took two centuries before they were driven out again, yet their symbol - the red cross- is still regarded with suspicion today. In March this year, he sought genuine reconciliation with other faiths. A most laudable cause from a dedicated, hardworking man, but can this plaintive plea really help to atone when there is so much to make up for?

Let us not forget that not all men who wore the raiment of the papacy were as good in spirit as the current pontiff. St. Damascus -366-384- was only elected to the Holy See after his men murdered 160 supporters of his main rival. John XII - 955-964- who became pope at 18 when his brutal father seized power in Rome. John was described as 'Monster of Vice', being charged with incest, rape and drunkenness. He is said to have turned the Vatican into a brothel, castrating rebellious cardinals and gouging out the eyes of protesting priests. The husband of one of his rape victims killed him.

Boniface VIII - 1294-1303 - Accused of getting to power by murdering his predecessor. Said to have described adultery as 'no more harmful than rubbing your hands together'. John XXIII - 1495-1503 - probably the worst of them all, so bad that Catholics won't acknowledge his existence. He was an ex-pirate from Naples, who fought his way into the church, having sex with at least 200 women whilst papal legate in Bologna, and running gambling and prostitution in the city at the same time. Deposed after five years, with 72 articles of sin being railed against him.

The recently published Ad Tuendam - In Defence of the Faith - insists that Catholics must obey the church, a sign that there is nervousness about he recent growth of Liberalism. As the world enters the next millennium, the Vatican is afraid of losing its grip on power over the 800 million Roman Catholics around the world. This is, make no mistake, an awesome power, and they insist, still, that they will never condone divorce, birth control, women priests or marriage for priests.

For the first 1000 years of Christian history, divorce was unregulated by the church and allowed providing consent was mutual. There were women priests, bishops and perhaps even one pope. St. Bridget of Kildare almost certainly acted as a bishop. It is thought that Pope John VII may actually have been a woman who enjoyed dressing as a man, and there are many examples of cardinals who had both wives and mistresses. 19th century France saw birth control amongst Catholics as normal practice, so what has changed?

It could be that there is now a belief, in the Vatican, that if current growth population were overly controlled, its power would fade. The Vatican Council II, of 1966, endorsed the intervention by Bishops in world governments. They believe that legislation involving birth control, abortion and family planning present threats to papal authority.

Pope Paul II set up a commission of Cardinals, Bishops and ordinary Catholics, to find a way of changing the church's stance on birth control without destroying Papal supremacy. Though in favor of 'changing the teaching of the church', they failed to agree on a way forward.

In 1968, the pope published Humane Vitae, which banned abortion and the pill - the major contributor to this work was Karol Wojtyla, the current pope. A major document published in March 2000 details the Vatican apology for their failure to do enough to help the Jews during the Holocaust. The then pope, Pius XII, was heavily criticized for his silence, which some attributed to his greater fear of Communism than the Nazis.

He even praised Adolf Hitler for moving against those 'godless communists' in Russia, and it is no secret that the Vatican had links with ODDESSA, a secret organization which helped many high-ranking Germans to flee, when the war ended. It was reported in July 1997 - by the associated press - that a memo kept secret for 50 years had been unearthed, revealing that the Vatican was indeed a repository for plundered Nazi Gold.

Well over a million visitors to the holy city are, each year, awestruck by the magnificence of the art treasures therein, worth untold billions, but little is known of the 'hidden' masterpieces, which are regarded as too risqué for the public. There is little doubt that the Vatican Bank, founded in 1942 by Pius XII, is one of the worlds most powerful financial institutions - they posted a profit of $6.5 million in 1997.

There can be no doubt that the Papacy is a position of supreme power, nor that it carries risks for the pontiff. Several have been murdered in the past, Benedict VII was poisoned in 983 A.D., as was Clement II in 1047. An attempt was made, in the 16th century, on the life of Pope Leo X, resulting in the execution of two Cardinals.

Belgian born Adrian VI was a reformist, was killed, in 1523, by his Italian doctor, who objected to his doctrines. The Romans put up a statue in honor of that doctor! John Paul I, shortest -ever-reigning pope died after only 34 days in 1978, and no autopsy was allowed. He had endorsed the highly controversial 'Five wounds of Christ'.

This document, advocating the direct election of Bishops by the people, proposed the unthinkable for Vatican traditionalists, namely the direct election of Bishops by the people and clergy - much too radical a notion. John Paul I's death is still regarded as highly suspicious by some, perhaps justifiably.

None who know the present pope will forget the moment when Mehmet Ali Agca fired the shot at the popemobile which almost killed the pontiff, but as his 20 year pontificate draws to its inevitable end, his campaign to seek forgiveness for his church is only superficially approved by those immediately below him in the church hierarchy.

The Vatican powers behind the pope would have us believe that the church and its leader are infallible, but that is clearly not the case. Many heinous acts have been committed in the past, all in the name of religious belief, and many of those supposedly old wounds are still, in reality, open sores for many of the world's religions.

Pope John Paul II, nearly 80 years old, is a frail, but nonetheless remarkable man. An old-fashioned Catholic in many ways, yet still able to address current issues with shrewd intelligence and awareness. His pilgrimage to the Holy Lands was a grand gesture of reconciliation, and his message, left at the Wailing Wall on March 26th - 'We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and, asking for your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.' - was deeply touching to all who witnessed it.

In spite of the enormity of this entire month, in terms of its meaning for the Catholic church and the pope, it may not be enough. In Islam, the religion of the Muslims, forgiveness can be measured on several levels, the highest being forgiveness which really seeks to redress the balance by making reparation to those wronged, to alleviate their suffering.

The pope could, for example, use some of the vast wealth of the church to pay off debts for third-world countries, many of which suffered horribly, in the name of Catholicism. Brotherhood is to be he new watchword for the church in third millennium, we are told, but the church remains divided on the wisdom of the pope's strategy. As the Bishop of Como, Alessandro Maggiolini asked - 'In whose name, exactly, is the Holy Father asking pardon?'

Nobody would say that they weren't prepared to offer forgiveness to his Holiness. The purity of his intent was far too plain, and far too powerful to be ignored, but he is just one man, standing at the forefront of a vast army which doesn't support him wholeheartedly.

For the untold millions who have suffered in the past, victims of religious intolerance or indifference, the plea for forgiveness may be very welcome, but simply far too little, and very much too late.

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