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Arab Pope

Pope Ben departs. Radical decision by the shepherd for the good of his flock. Now, next: ‘Palestinian Arab elected Pope as John XXIV!’ blaze out the news media. Can you picture it? The incredulity: ‘A stunt, what?’ The shock: ‘Have the cardinals gone gaga?’ The alarm: ‘It’ll drive the Israelis up the wall!’ The fear: ‘More terror now’. The hope: ‘Peace stands a chance at last’. The suspicion: ‘The Vatican aims to convert Muslims’. The hatred: ‘Bloody***!’ And so on.

All likely reactions. But what of the event itself? To date, no Palestinian cardinal sits in the Sacred College, whose task it will be to choose Pope Benedict’s successor, in God’s own, good time. Doesn’t that kill the idea stone dead? Nope. The next Pope does not have to be a cardinal. Gregory XVI, elected in 1831, wasn’t even a bishop. One thing alone is strictly necessary in Canon Law: that he be a Christian, i.e. a baptised man – although it helps if he is a Catholic also.

Race, of all things, is immaterial – ‘Catholic’ means universal and previous job-holders have issued from East and West alike. Come to think of it, an Arab Palestinian Pope would fit the tradition rather well. St Peter, the prince of the apostles (‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church’, Jesus said), was a Semite - indeed, a Palestinian – ‘Palestina’ being the name of the Roman province of his birth.
That would make Jesus also into a Palestinian…
And what would be wrong with that, pray?
But he was a Jew!

Quite. So what? I see no contradiction. British-born people from the Indian sub-continent are both British and Europeans - what else? Would the fiery, loving Messiah object to his designation as a Palestinian? I believe not. Jews and Arabs – could they not share the same name? A new state called Israel-Palestine, perhaps ‘Israeteen’, inclusive of both cultures, would be a jolly revolutionary idea. (Alas, I grant you, a two-state solution is probably more realistic.)

Arab Pope. A dream? Rather, a vision. Conjured up by Holy Ghost. It is sound theology: God’s Spirit inspires the cardinals in conclave to choose the right man. The finger of God will be at work – despite all the politicking and posturing. Else, how is the Church to contend that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail’ against her?

How likely? Allahu a’alam. God is God of surprises. Back in 1978, when Pope Wojtyla was chosen, it surprised the world. Many were suspicious, scared. The Iron Curtain was still up. A cardinal from a Communist country made some jittery. It was the days of Catholic-Marxist dialogue, remember. Were the two sets of dogmas, two absolutisms ganging up against the capitalist West? Well, we know now the Polish Pope was to play a key role in the destruction of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. Providential, no?

Wouldn’t many – the professional conspiracy-mongers & co. - be bound to smell a huge rat, like suspecting a Christian anti-Semitic plot afoot? Anti-Semitism with a Semite on the throne of St Peter? Huh! As Eliza Doolittle might say: not bloody likely! Still, it’s a tad more complicated than that. John XXIV would have to bend over backwards to reassure people in the US and Israel (and the Church) alike. Just the same, again, when it comes to God’s Spirit… ‘the wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound thereof but do not know whence it comes and whither it goes’, says Christ to Nicodemus (St John 3:8). You can’t be too timid about the operations of the Holy. Nor can you simply ratiocinate about it. Pace Einstein, God does seem to play dice at times – only, His apparent die-casting is called Providence. It all works out for the best.

What about Muslim reactions? Would they not feel targeted? The Vatican’s cunning strategy for conversion – that sort of thing.
There were plenty of Christian Arabs well before the rise of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad himself appears to have been friendly with Christian monks. And, whatever you may say of Muslims, they are no soft touch for conversion. No, this, of all dangers, is no danger at all.
Hhmmm...What good would come of it?

Enormous. The Middle East is in turmoil. And Palestine is still the most explosive dispute of our time. Unless satisfactorily tackled and fairly settled, it will fester on and spread out, like a malignant virus, poisoning and disrupting international relations for all foreseeable future. What’s more, its solution is closely linked with Christian-Muslim relations. Rightly or wrongly, the Islamic perception is that the West is both responsible for the Palestinians’ plight and is at war with Islam. And, in the same optics, West=Christianity. Hence, as the Papacy is the Christian emblem par excellence, the sight of an Arab Pope on St Peter’s throne would convey a terrific message. It would say to Muslims: ‘The Church repudiates the clash of civilisations. So much so that John XXIV, the Vicar of Christ on earth, now incarnates the burden of blood, guilt and suffering of the peoples of the Holy Land.’ Not all that much different from what Jesus of Nazareth came on earth to do, some would say…

Furthermore, the Arab Pope will shake up Europe, too. A continent badly needing salvation from the idiocy, the evils, the cancers of secularism, unbelief and filth. As to dear Pope Benedict: after the initial shock I have resolved his decision is for the best. Truly a holy man, despite his mean, spiteful and raucous detractors. I am thrilled his resignation statement calls on the Virgin Mary to assist the cardinals in choosing his successor. Most auspicious. Reverence for the mother of Christ is enshrined in both Bible and Qur’an. And, believe it or not, the Mother of Christ appeared to me once in Cairo...O Blessed Virgin, pray for us!

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 February 2013 19:51

Frank Gelli I am an Anglican priest and cultural critic and commentator. I have BA in Philosophy, MA in Christian Ethics, MA in Islamic Studies, PGCE in Religious Education and Oxford Certificate in Theology. I have been a journalist & drama critic in Italy and England.
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