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The Pope: a scholar and a gentleman

Impressions of a new papacyMichael Paul Gallagher, Dean of Theology at the Gregorian University, has watched Pope Benedict from close quarters and has been very impressed. He speaks about the pope to Piaras Jackson SJ in this interview for RNN.


Fr. Michael Paul Gallagher: Oh it was exciting, it was a great morning. It was a beautiful morning too, a lovely sunny morning. And the Pope, if I can put it in very popular terms, was a great hit with the students. As as soon as came in there was great cheering and so on. And most of the students couldn’t fit in the big entrance hall where he was meeting everybody else. They were in various classes and lecture halls with large television screens and so almost the first thing he said in his speech was ‘I recognise that most of the students here can’t even see me directly but I want to say something strong, this university exists for you the students.’

And of course that got a great cheer and brought the house down. No he had a great feel with them, he was most cordial he stayed for about two hours. I met him briefly myself and he gave great encouragement to our faculty, the Theology Faculty, because he told us that we should be thinking about restructuring the whole approach to theology in order to met what he sees as the cultural crisis of today. He was most open, most encouraging most warm.Fr. Piaras Jackson: He’s a man we often hear described as a former university lecturer. The academic and the rational is important to him. How do you see that being worked out in his ministry as you see him working in Italy and in the world?

MPG: Well, he’s very much the professor all his life, that’s true. I don’t suppose any Pope in history wrote as many books as he did before he became pope. And he is about to bring out a book fairly shortly, in a month or two, which is going to be his own personal book. On the cover of the book his name will be down firstly as Joseph Ratzinger, and only after that as Benedict XVI. He is insisting that it is his own book about Christ. So he’s still very much the thinker. He’s in some ways a very spiritual thinker – I think one of the surprises of him as pope is that people come to hear him -they don’t necessarily come to see him. One American journalist has made the comment that people came to see John Paul, there was a dramatic almost theatrical presence. But people come to hear Pope Benedict and he speaks simply, spiritually and there’s always something to take away of a meditative kind. He’s a very pastoral man.

PJ: He tries to engage people broadly. He has an interest, not just in people who believe as he does, but tries to engage with people who are unbelievers as well.

MPG: Yes over the recent years in Italy, he has had very public dialogue with some fairly militant atheists, and he also dialogued with Jurgens Habermas in Germany. He has a huge trust in reason. By reason we shouldn’t be thinking of something cold and logical, but the deepest part of ourselves that can think. He has a great trust in our rational capacity to arrive at the light of faith. He gave an interview – by the way, I think this is one of the most interesting things that is probably not known in Ireland – shortly before he became pope to a very left-wing Italian newspaper called La Republica. In it he spoke about the core of Christianity as a love story between God and Humanity. And he went on to say that an intellectual approach is not enough, that we have to have concrete experiences to make the Christian message real today. This was extraordinary talking to a left-wing newspaper, and it was the opposite of what you would expect from him. He belies his ‘policeman image’, the one he got when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Protecting orthodoxy is a bit of a policeman’s job.

PJ: At the time of his election as pope, Michael Paul, you asked people to put aside the image of policeman and to think of him instead as a gentle man and a gentleman. Do you think he has been seen to be as such?

MPG: Yes. Perhaps I should give the context of that remark. Brian Dobson was broadcasting live from the roof of the Jesuit curia in Rome, which looks down on St. Peter’s Square. And it was just after Pope Benedict was first presented to the world as pope. The big question being asked by journalists was: “How is it that this man, who is looked on as the grand inquisitor, can become pope?” “This man Ratzinger”, was the phrase used. And I reacted a little bit angrily, perhaps to this expression, and I said: “Listen, you don’t know this man Ratzinger”. Not that I was claiming to know him very well, but I had met him once or twice and I know the other side of him. That’s when I said, I think: “Give him time. I think we are in for a few surprises, I can guarantee you that he is a gentle man and a gentleman.” And I do think I have been proved right and that now he is perceived by millions in a way that he wasn’t three years ago.

PJ: And how have the Italian people taken to him. People who perhaps were disappointed when one of there own hadn’t been elected, after there had been a foreigner in the job before that?

MPG: I don’t know that they were really expecting an Italian. I think that the disappointment or the shock was the arrival of a Polish pope, but that’s nearly thirty years ago. And they’ve got used to the idea of a non-Italian being pope. I know one old lady – she’s a poor old lady living on her own, a widow of eighty-six or -seven in a poor flat, without much heat, in a poor district of Rome. And she watches television a fair bit. She says: ‘He’s a dote, but he’s very shy.’ So he has gone down very well with the Italian public. They realise that this is a different person. Above all, he is more retiring, he doesn’t have the great gestures, he’s not a great orator, like the last pope. But I think they appreciate that here is a deep, good, spiritual man. And he has become remarkably popular. The crowds going to the audiences are way up on years ago.

PJ: So as the pope is more popular now is it that our expectation of him has changed or has he changed.

MPG: Both I think. I think he has changed. I think the role has allowed a different side of (let’s call him) Fr. Ratzinger to emerge. A much more pastoral side. He still has all his worries about relativism in the world today, that people have no real anchors in truth and so on. But it’s very significant to me that his encyclical God is Love (English) got an editorial in The London Times praising it as a hymn to human values and to love. In that encyclical you won’t find a word on relativism at all. So there is the Fr. Ratzinger who is very concerned about dangers in our culture – especially in Europe. And then there is the pastoral man who wants to go for the essentials of the Christian vision as a love story and communicate that prayerfully and pastorally to people. I think that second side wasn’t perceived before and it is now allowed to emerge, because of the new role he has in the world.

PJ: What will represent his being out in the church? What will represent his papacy, do you think?

MPG: I think a new tone. It’s perhaps a little to early to be sure of this, but I think we will have more listening to local churches. I think we will have more of a sense of the diversity of needs in places like Australia or Ireland or Nigeria or wherever. Okay, that was always recognised, but I think he is for a man of his age; he is amazingly open and flexible to the diversity of the world.