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The Borgias and good popes, bad popes

Features

Mgr John Broadbent
31 March 2012

altThe television screening late last year of the series The Borgias on the 15th century Pope Alexander VI prompted questions about the papacy in general and particularly about the series subject, portrayed as sensationally bad.

Though the series won wide acclaim as a solid drama and was nominated for a Golden Globe award, the storyline over-sensationalised the sensational and sometimes distorted the facts.

A model pope
Only God can judge whether a pope is good or bad, but if history is to evaluate the great blessing for unity that God has given the church, one can do no better than see the first Pope, St Peter, as an exemplar.

Mike Riddell in the February issue of Tui Motu [‘Sifting the tradition anew’] reminds us that St Peter, particularly in his first years, was the ‘rock’ on which the church was to be built in the years after Pentecost.

A story in Acts 10 illustrates Peter’s conversion. The story goes that Roman centurion, Cornelius, whose growing belief in the God of the Jews led him to be kind to them and to pray constantly, was told by an angel that God was answering his prayers because of his charity to the poor.
‘You are to send some men to Simon Peter who is staying with a man in Joppa,’ (known today as Tel Aviv).

Around midday of the following day while waiting for a meal to be prepared, Peter went up to the roof to pray. In a trance he had a vision of a large sheet being lowered from heaven ‘full of’ animals, reptiles and wild birds. A voice said to him, ‘Get up Peter, kill and eat’. Peter replied ‘Certainly not Lord! I have never eaten anything profane or unclean’. The voice said, ‘Do not consider anything unclean that God has declared clean’. This happened three times and the sheet was taken back to heaven.

Still pondering this, Peter went downstairs for his meal just as the three men Cornelius had sent entered asking for him. The Holy Spirit told Peter to comply with their request ‘For I have sent them’. The whole party including Peter and some Christians from Joppa set out for Cornelius’ house the next morning.

Arriving in Caesarea the following day, Peter reminded Cornelius that it was wrong for him to associate with or enter the house of Gentiles (pagan converts) because this would make him unclean. Then Peter told Cornelius of his vision and of how God insisted three times that what God considered clean was clean.
‘And so when you sent for me, I came without objection. I ask you why did you send for me?’ Cornelius recounted his own angelic vision.

Peter then traced the history of the Old Testament and of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. During his talk, many in the crowd began calling out, praying and talking in tongues.

Peter then said that, because the Holy Spirit had clearly descended on these pagans even before they were baptised, their conversion was valid.

Mike Riddell’s article emphasised the fact that the Acts 10 story was of Peter’s conversion too – ‘arguably the single most subversive text in the entire canon of scripture’. Why? Peter is the one exhibiting orthodoxy by promoting the received tradition.
‘Unfortunately he makes the mistake of correcting God. Peter knew the rules but he is now forced to reconcile three things: his knowledge of scripture, the vision of God speaking and his experience with Cornelius. In that nexus, something has to give.’

This was why in Acts 15, when some Jewish Christians were going around saying that pagans like Cornelius should have to be circumcised before they could be received into the Church, Peter and the apostles received Paul and Barnabas with great joy. The pair had just finished their first missionary journey during which they baptised hundreds of converts without demanding the circumcision Judaism demanded.

After the leader of the more conservative apostles, James, had had his say, Peter stood up and, with the support of Paul and Barnabas, told of his experience on the roof at Joppa and his reaction to the Spirit coming down on Cornelius’s household.

Finally James quoted a prophet from the Old Testament, ‘And so all the rest of the human race will come to me, all the Gentiles whom I have called to be my own. So says the Lord who made this known long ago.’

A radical acceptance
To preserve unity among all Christians, James asked that the Gentiles should be asked not to eat meat offered to idols, to refrain from sexual promiscuity and not to eat blood or any animal that has been strangled.

For the Jews, blood was sacred, representing life itself – hence the kosher law for Jews and Muslims. All agreed and the apostles wrote to all Christians especially to those of Antioch where there had been much debate about this issue.

Leading by reconciliation
In these stories from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter shows the traits of a good pope in reconciling differences in the church – pursuing a consensus of varying theologies and preserving unity.

Another example is Blessed John XXIII [1958-63] who achieved great popularity even outside the church. After living for many years as an apostolic delegate in Eastern Orthodox and Muslim countries, Pope John saw the need for change in the church.

He was humble and wise enough to realise that he would need the church behind him so he called together the bishops of the world who promulgated the documents of Vatican II.

Observing the Spirit at work
As Peter had done before him, John discerned that something was wrong with the church. It had become inward looking – Pope Benedict XVI has also clearly sensed this with his policy of new evangelisation.

As a historian, Blessed John XXIII saw, as Peter did when he called the apostles and elders together, the Spirit working throughout the church in resolving whether the law of circumcision should be kept as practised in Judaism or modified for the Gentiles as Paul and Barnabas had done.

The signs of the times
Peter’s experience on the roof at Joppa and seeing Cornelius and his family receiving the Holy Spirit had prepared him in a different way for changing what people had regarded as God’s unchangeable law. Peter’s guidance persuaded James and his followers that change was necessary.

Blessed John XXIII practised what became known in Vatican II terminology as ‘reading the signs of the times’.

There are unchangeable truths in the Catholic tradition; but instead of being evil, some of what is happening outside the church’s teaching could be improving people’s goodness, talents and happiness. Blessed John XXIII read those ‘signs’, consulted his bishops and, like St Peter, inaugurated change.

However, Peter was also human and at one time felt the self-respect of a traditional Jew by choosing to eat with Jews only whereas by the time of the Council of Jerusalem he knew otherwise. St Paul, when he heard of this, confronted Peter who humbly acknowledged his wrong (Galatians 2, 11-14) – the sign of a good pope.

The importance of context
An obstacle to understanding the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ popes of history is the context in which each one lived. In the first few centuries the popes lived in pagan Rome and were not hugely important figures. They led mostly by their sanctity.

But when Constantine freed Christianity at the beginning of the fourth century and the popes became political figures, they had to fight for their independence and that of the church against pagan and Christian kings and emperors. Their success often determined whether they were judged good or bad.

The gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent told of the three temptations of Jesus which for many Christian writers symbolised the three great human temptations which Lent asks us to resist – possessions, power and prestige.

Arguably, all humans have in some way felt drawn to these and, if allowed, they can slowly take over one’s personality even if one starts out wanting to do the right thing.

The popes were human too – men of their time imbued with the prejudices of their era. In acquiring the power of papal office which grew in the Middle Ages to be one of the greatest on earth, they could and did give in. Yet, deep down, they were conscious of their main gift of preserving the Faith of the Church which they also did.

Some of the popes and the context in which they lived will be the subject of two more articles. Indeed what two-thousand-year-old organisation still has, despite much of its history, one billion members and much life and hope and shares Christianity with another billion members in other Christian churches? The Church could only be divine!