Clifford Longley: After the drama, the Church must return to the real world

John Paul II was Pope by accident, which may have considerable bearing on what happens next
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He wasn't the Pope they wanted. The papacy that has just concluded, one of the most remarkable in the 2,000-year-old history of the See of St Peter, was never meant to happen. This is one of the most extraordinary aspects of Pope John Paul II's extraordinary career. He was Pope by accident. And that fact may have a considerable bearing on what happens next.

When the hundred or so cardinals assembled for the first Conclave to choose a successor to Pope Paul VI in October 1978, they were reflecting on the life and times of the pope who had just died and wondering where to go from there. The consensus outside the Vatican was that it was time to shrink the papacy, not expand it into the spiritual superpower it actually went on to become under Karol Wojtyla.

So they chose Cardinal Albino Luciani, Patriarch of Venice, a man noted not for his organisational ability or international statesmanship but for his warmth, friendliness and open-mindedness.

Cardinal Basil Hume was one of the pope-makers in that first Conclave. (Some English papers liked to suggest he could have become Pope himself, but there was really no chance of that.) Before and after the cardinals made their choice, he was telling his aides that it was time the papacy went back to its original character, that of Bishop of Rome. Fundamentally, a pope is a pope only because he is bishop of Christendom's senior diocese, first among equals (primus inter pares) of all the bishops in the world. You can't be pope without being Bishop of Rome.

By the end of the reign of Paul VI, the strong feeling throughout the Catholic Church was that it was time for a pope who properly represented this principle - someone who would shrink the Vatican down to size.

But then - most dramatically - Luciani died, just 33 days after he was elected. The new pope was chosen in an atmosphere of intense depression, half the cardinals thinking perhaps they had been mistaken about Luciani after all and at least some of them wondering what exactly (or even who exactly) had killed him. So they went from one extreme to the other, from a quite pastoral pope whose main characteristic was an easy manner and a nice smile - the best sort of Italian churchman, everybody said - to one of the cleverest and most complex individuals in the entire Church, the man who became Pope John Paul II.

He would see his calling to the papacy as part of the fulfillment of suffering Poland's unique destiny as a crucified and redeemed nation, chosen by God to lead the defeat first of Communism and then of empty secularism.

He was pushed by Cardinal Koenig of Vienna, who was until his death last year one of John Paul II's strongest critics. Koenig believed in the Luciani model of the papacy, and somehow thought Wojtyla was the man to deliver it. He forgot that Poland was the land where the Counter-Reformation made its deepest impact, where Catholics prided themselves on being more Catholic than the Pope. And it was this factor, of course, which began the destabilisation of Communism in Eastern Europe in the early 1980s, ably orchestrated by the Polish Pope in the Vatican. The Wojtyla reign was in many ways a marvellous one for the Catholic Church (and for the world), marvellous and dreadful at the same time.

In this reading of events, therefore, the papacy that has just ended was something of a historic aberration, a departure from the course charted by the Second Vatican Council which had sought to redress the balance between the centre and the periphery. For if the Church of Paul VI was thought to be over-centralised, how much more so was the Church of John Paul II. If Paul VI's greatest mistake was to dig in over birth control rather than let the Church drift towards a more liberal position, how much worse was the fundamentalist sexual morality taught by John Paul II - no abortions ever, an even tighter line on contraception (the use of which he once likened to atheism), no condoms to prevent the spread of Aids, no flexibility whatever over divorce or homosexuality.

So the epoch-making question that now confronts the Catholic Church is this: was the gentle smiling Luciani the right choice after all and was the election of the dynamic, driven Wojtyla a month later the effect of depression, guilt or even panic? Is it time to get back on the course plotted by Vatican II, with the Bishop of Rome no longer seen as chief executive officer of a major international conglomerate but as a court of appeal, a safety net or place of last resort, a motivator and enabler rather than a doer, a leader whose main responsibility was not so much to be parish priest to the whole world but just a kindly pastor to his fellow bishops when they needed him?

It is not a question of who can step into the great man's shoes, but who can put them quietly on one side and be his own man. Instead of tortured mysticism and inspirational genius, it is time for normality, decentralisation, and a bit less certainty, a bit less drama. Let us canonise John Paul II by acclamation - and get back to the real world.