It is good to be able to greet you once more alongside the delivery of our weekly Newsletter, and I trust that you are keeping well and safe in these trying times. What great scenes of hope and optimism we’ve witnessed during this last week in the initial distribution of a vaccine to members of our national family. Let us continue to remain up-beat that it will be available for many more of us before too long, bringing a refreshing normality to our lives. Until then we continue to respond to the invitation to behave appropriately to our circumstances.
A statement on a school classroom wall read: “You are a piece of God’s plan.” It is a great reminder that we all have a part to play in something greater than our own unfolding lives. Kirkwood Hospice have a team of volunteers who ensure that all the pieces are in jigsaws donated to them making sure that no paying customer, having laboured for hours, arrives at the frustrating moment of realization that there is a piece missing ! Alongside attending church and preparing her own Christmas Day meal, Mary Berry ensures that there is a jigsaw in her kitchen for all comers to begin the process of putting together. If a single piece is missing from a near-complete jigsaw that solo omission catches our eye, almost to a point of compulsive captivation and distraction. When complete, we fail to see the individual pieces, focusing our attention instead on the masterpiece before our eyes. Much of life, of who we are, and what we achieve is piecemeal. A jigsaw. This extends to our Liturgy and things we are familiar with in the context of our church rituals. One of the most noticeable prayers that is made up of many parts is the Eucharistic Prayer, hopefully so familiar to the congregation and prayed well enough by the celebrant that the varying parts of it blend into a seamless unity.
One of our daily intercessions in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass is for our Holy Father, Pope Francis, whom we pray for by name together with our Bishop, Marcus. Without a doubt knowing that they are being supported by the prayers of the Faithful across the world must be a great source of encouragement to our successive spiritual leaders. The Holy Spirit gifted the twentieth century with no less than nine successors to St. Peter, each reassuringly a hugely different personality to his predecessor, bringing to their role and office an abundance of gifts and skills, some perhaps, like everyone else’s, more obvious than others. Of the nine, four have been canonized – Pope St. Pius X (1903 – 1914), Pope St. John XXIII (1958 – 1963), Pope St. Paul VI (1963 – 1978) and Pope St. John Paul II (1978 – 2005) – and two others are journeying toward sainthood, currently holding the title of Venerable – Pope Pius XII (1939 – 1958) and Pope John Paul I (1978). The remaining three names of the Servant of the servants of God (“servus servorum Dei”) are Pope Leo XIII (1878 – 1903), who at his death in 1903 at 93 was the oldest man to hold the office; the scholar-athlete Pope Pius XI (1922 – 1939), who was sometime Prefect (i.e. in charge) of the Papal Library, although I doubt that he stamped many books or collected fines for those that were overdue !; and Pope Benedict XV (1914 – 1922), of who, when it came to the production of a biography of him in English, was described as “The Unknown Pope.” As with anything, amongst the ranks of our Popes are personal favourites whether we have lived under their pontificates or not, often highlighted by the number of teenage boys who take the name of the first Pope, St. Peter, at Confirmation.
Amongst those that I most admire are three of the twentieth century pontiffs. The earliest of them is Pope St. Pius X, who encouraged more frequent reception of Holy Communion amongst the Faithful, and whose tomb is close to one of the doorways of St. Peter’s Basilica, from where he continues to spiritually greet pilgrims to the Eternal City.
The most recent is Pope (Venerable) John Paul I, whose infectious and captivating natural smile on his election in 1978 illuminated hearts the world over, my own included. A smiling Pope, whose public persona was so different from that of his predecessor the rather austere looking Pope St. Paul VI. His smile, captured on a photographic image, hangs on my kitchen wall, silently reminding me of some words of St. Teresa of Calcutta – “Peace starts with a smile.”
The other member of my papal triumvirate is Pope Benedict XV, “The Unknown Pope.”Aged just 59 at his election in the early days of the Great War, following the demise – from a broken heart, it is said, caused by the war – of Pope St. Pius X, Benedict XV, was a relative youngster in comparison to many of his predecessors. Chosen, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, for his diplomatic skills and prowess when the world dwelt under very dark skies, he had only been a Cardinal for three months before his election in early September-1914. Within just a few short weeks he had embarked on a personal mission to bring a lasting peace to a broken world. With the initial hopes of an end to hostilities by Christmas fast fading he called for a Christmas Truce. Whilst political leaders acknowledged the goodwill behind the call, they failed to back the initiative. At grass-roots level the voice of the Pope was heard, and during the week leading up to Christmas reports were made of British, French and German soldiers acknowledging the Season by crossing, in peace, into the no-man’s land that separated them. There are varying accounts of what the ordinary soldiers actually did with some reports of an exchange of greetings and small gifts, others of carol singing or football matches, whilst others speak of soldiers on opposing sides combining forces and resources to bury fallen comrades with dignity and appropriate ceremony, and others recording the handing back of prisoners of war. It was sporadic, but significant enough for it to make headline news. Truces in successive years were not nearly as many due to the determined opposition to them by military leaders, and even amongst the ranks of ordinary soldiers a hardness of heart, borne from the daily grind of war, ended most acts of festive goodwill.
With the declaration of the neutrality of the Holy See, Pope Benedict worked tirelessly throughout 1916 and 1917 to mediate a peace between the warring nations. On 1st August 1917 he produced a seven point Peace Plan, which gained a relatively favourable hearing in England and amongst some other nations, however it was rejected by America and the German response was far from united or clear. Despite his earlier dismissal of the plan, President Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen point Peace Plan of January 1918 contained more than just a hint of Benedict’s objectives. Imitation they say is a form of flattery ! Not totally drained by the energy of his diplomatic initiatives, Pope Benedict threw an equal amount of passion into humanitarian efforts to lessen the growing impact of the war. Manifested in attending to the needs of prisoners of war, the exchange of wounded prisoners and ensuring that food deliveries reached near-starving communities in Europe and beyond, Benedict was also one of the few world leaders to both condemn and highlight the desperate plight of the Armenian people who were subject to barbaric treatment by Turkey including acts of genocide. At a local level, it would be good to think that Joseph Duddy, whose name appears on the Cleckheaton War Memorial, already a prisoner of war in the hands of the Germans by Christmas 1914, benefitted from the compassionate initiatives of Pope Benedict.
Even with the ending of hostilities in 1918, Pope Benedict continued to proclaim a message of reconciliation amongst nations, culturing and seeking tangible signs of a more harmonious relationship between people of differing cultures and backgrounds. Aware of the continuing devastation and hardship that were a daily reality in the lives of many ordinary people acts of great humanitarianism continued in his name among peoples of many nationalities until his death in 1922. He was certainly a remarkable “piece of God’s plan” in the lineage of the twentieth century papacy.
The message of the Christmas Angels to the shepherds in the fields was “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom He is pleased.” (Luke 2:14) In the cast of a nativity performance there can only be one Joseph or Mary, but there is always room for a spare angel or two ! Rather like characters mentioned last week, they can be seen to be on the periphery, but their message was fundamental: peace and harmony. In the jigsaw of the Christmas story they are small pieces, often portrayed above and beyond the central scene with its major characters. The absence of the angels would leave a very noticeable gap, drawing our eyes away from the stable, distracting us from the arrival of the Christ-child. Their role is as a “piece of God’s plan” and their message is as significant to our world of today as it was to that of two thousand years ago, and each unfolding generation. A little over a century ago, a currently untitled Pope in Church circles, was guided by the message of the Christmas angels in seeking a lasting peace amid an embittered generation of humankind. He played out his part on the world’s political stage, for many observers in a minor capacity. Whilst history may see him very much as a part-player in the events of the Great War, to those who put down their tools of destruction and walked across no-man’s land to chat, laugh, sing and exchange token gifts, for an all too brief period of time, his vision of a Christmas Truce was a reality.
Perhaps our own willingness and openness to being a “piece in God’s plan” will allow something of His Kingdom to dawn in our lives this Advent and Christmastime. That illumination of the new day may not always be where we imagine either. In the case of Pope Benedict XV one of the very few memorials to him is in Turkey, a predominantly non-Christian county, in the courtyard of St. Esprit Cathedral (Instanbul). The plaque on a statue acknowledges him as: “The great Pope of the world tragedy … benefactor of all people, irrespective of nationality or religion.” How refreshing to know that God’s peace – conveyed through a limited human channel – has the potential of reaching to all people of good will.
Holding you and your loved ones in prayerful remembrance and affection.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas