PORTADOWN’S Roman Catholic community - like their 1.2 billion fellow religionists throughout the world - were initially stunned by this week’s sudden resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. But now, according to one of the town’s leading Catholic laymen, that has been replaced by a sense of compassion and understanding.
Eamonn Fleming carries the title of ‘Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great’, an honour of the Holy See, established by Pope Gregory XVI in 1831. (“Maybe it isn’t as grand as it sounds!” said Eamonn which typical humour).
He added, “The initial reaction in town was that a Pope simply can’t do this. But then it transpired that, 600 years ago, Pope Gregory XII had resigned in a welter of controversy. And while the Church may have its differences right now, the consensus of opinion is that Pope Benedict, who is 85, in failing health, and simply tired of the crushing responsibility, felt it was time to go.”
He added there was no doubt that the Global Catholic Church has its problems - the paedophilia controversy and how to deal with it, many members kicking against the conservative traces, the orthodoxy-versus-modernisation, and the fact that the fulcrum of the Church had shifted from its traditional western strongholds towards the ‘new’ regimes of Africa and South America.
“Then, there is the ever-present debate over celibacy,” said Mr Fleming. “The Catholic Church has, of course, lost many prospective priests who chose marriage over ministry. And yet I have met many married priests in the Eastern Rite - like Russian and Ukraine where it is permitted - unlike the Western Rite (Ireland among them) where it isn’t allowed. And clergy from the Church of England’s Catholic wing who have transferred over to Catholicism due to various issues, are allowed to remain married.”
He reckons that celibacy may eventually be phased out in the natural way of things, “although the main opposition will come from the old guard who will argue that they made the sacrifice of celibacy”.
As local people adjust their minds to the unexpected turn of events - truly historic in the history of the RC Church - the focus now is on who will succeed the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Said Mr Fleming, “It’s all speculation, but it has left a situation totally unprecedented since the 15th century, and local parishioners keep saying to me that the Pope simply couldn’t do this under the laws of the church.
“But he did, and it’s ironic that African and South American Cardinals are in the mix - it’s a sort of reversal of the traditional missionary work, and maybe we’ll soon see the regular sight of missionaries from the Third World countries coming over to re-evangelise the West!”
He added that Dr John Sentuma, Church of England Archbishop of York, was perhaps the most obvious example, “with many believing - including myself - that he should have been made Archbishop of Canterbury, but at 63, maybe he still has time.”
The main topic of conversation, though, at this week’s Masses in St Patrick’s and St John’s in Portadown will be the unprecedented decision (in modern times) of the Pope to call it a day, although he does have the admiration of most Catholics as a deep intellectual who did his best to wrestle with a post that perhaps was impossible, given that he is 85, unwell, and faced with the whirlpool of problems that the Church faces.
Cardinal Sean Brady, Primate of all Ireland, spoke in glowing terms of the Pontiff, who will be replaced by the end of March.
He said, “He is a man of kindness, gentleness and unassuming manner, and yet at the same time, he possesses clarity and passion.
“My most recent meeting with him was at the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity in November, when he congratulated me on the success of the international Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in which he was very interested. I regard it as a great vote of confidence on his part to have entrusted the congress to the Irish Church.”