SOME FIFTY YEARS ago, ii was commonly said that the most powerful personage in the Catholic Church was a German nun called Mother Pasqualina. This almost forgotten figure had the job of presiding over the Papal household in the Vatican: she saw to it that Pope Pius XII was clothed and fed, that annoying people were kept away from him, and that his routine was not interrupted. She, alone, shared what one might call intimacy with the loneliest man on earth.
A parallel exists with the life of the widowed Queen Victoria who, wrapped in interminable grief for her beloved Albert, nevertheless tolerated being ruled by her Scots ghillie, John Brown. Many saw John Brown who treated everyone with scant respect as a sinister influence on the great Queen Empress; some even whispered they were married. No such ill-intentioned scandal has ever touched the name of Mother Pasqualina. One only has to look at photographs of Pope Pius to see that he was quite above all human weakness. Queen Victoria, despite her rigid formal expression, her stiff widow's weeds, was a real woman. We all know she loved Disraeli and loathed poor old Gladstone, who was by far the most Victorian of her prime ministers. But Pope Pius, did he have any human feelings at all?
If he did, they never emerged. He was the last Pope to live such a rigidly orchestrated life. He always dined alone; when he rang people up (there's something incongruous about the Pontiff using so modern an instrument as a telephone, I feel), at the sound of his voice ("Qui parla Pacelli" "Pacelli speaking"), the overawed recipient of the call would sink to his knees. When he appeared in public audience, he was carried shoulder high on his sede gestatoria. When he became Pope, he was crowned with the triple tiara, signifying dominion over hell, heaven arid earth.
For these reasons, and others, when I think of Pope Pacelli, I think of Moses, who climbed Mount Sinai alone, and spoke with God face to face. And I see a small white figure, frail, bespectacled, carrying an immense burden, and intensely alone.
As a matter of fact, Pope Pius XII did speak to God face to face, or so I once read in a book about twenty years ago. It is said that during the cruel sufferings of his final illness, Our Blessed Lord visited Pius in his bedroom and uttered comforting words. In other words, the Pope was a visionary, a mystic and a saint. That this incident is no longer publicised as it once was is a sign, I suspect, that this image of Pope-as-lonelymystic is not viewed favourably today. Our claims for the Papacy have become rather more modest.
Is this a good thing? I once had dinner with a group of Professors from Rome University, all of them now in their fifties; the conversation turned to how wonderful Rome had been during the Vatican Council, how they had heard Pope John XXIII, etc, etc these conversations used to be quite common, though they're getting much rarer these days. I stuck my oar in and volunteered the thesis that Pope Pius XII had been frigid, remote, otherworldly; that he had been a powerful symbol of the Eternal Truths, the transcendental realities that lie beyond this transient world of ours; and that Pope John had been, well, folksy, a little bit too much like Ringo Starr in his cuddly lovability. There was an appalled silence. "You weren't alive then," one of my friends said to me. "The atmosphere in the Church under Pope Pacelli was suffocating. You felt you couldn't breathe."
I saw what he meant at once; living in a Church, the head of which has a direct hotline to God, could be offputting. Perhaps Pope John's "fresh air" was much needed; perhaps this is why subsequent perceived attempts to shut the windows are so much resented by the fifty and sixtysomething generations. But at the same time, I felt a strange love for lonely Pope Pacelli, the man who carried the burden of the world on his shoulders.
Nevertheless, I can still see that this leads us to the question "What is the Pope for?" Ought he to he a silent symbol of the Eternal Verities, the immoveable rock in the midst of a sea of change? Or should he be, for want of a better word, more human?
I was in France last week and wherever I went I asked Catholics and non-Catholics alike what they thought of Bishop Gaillot a man who, in all his cheerful informality, is the furthest possible remove from Pius XII imaginable. Much to my surprise, the verdict on Monsignor Gaillot Was universally favourable. A good man, they all said. Why? I asked. He was ouvert, they said, open. Just what he was open to, I didn't quite gather, nor could they explain, but I received the same impression that I had got from my Roman friends, namely a marked preference for ecclesiastical fresh air, particularly amongst the generation that had been young during the Second Vatican Council. I was also struck by the fact that Bishop Gaillot had many admirers among the lapsed, and the few Protestants I spoke to.
The fact remains that Bishop Gaillot is genuinely popular; he's a familiar figure to most thinking French people, thanks to his frequent appearances on television. He is a Bishop of the media age: the cameras love him, and he has mastered the art of the soundbite. He's a great communicator in a way that no other French Bishop is. Added to this, he is also burningly sincere; his trip to the South Seas with the Rainbow Warrior was not simply a publicity stunt. Mgr Gaillot is a true Action Bishop.
He was born in the reign of Pope Pius XII, but what a difference between the two men! We don't, fortunately for us, have to make a choice between them, but the disparity leaves me, for one, thoughtful. t