by Christopher Howse
IF TO WATCH the news on television is an experience of horror relieved by economic anxiety, to review the year ought to make the writings of Jeremiah look like a slightly unenthusiastic report of a Women's Institute seaside outing.
Strangely enough, the impression the year has given the average Briton in the Red Lion seems not so laden with disgust as international events might be supposed to warrant. One reason could be that we have brought home the reality of war and the rumour of war with such thoroughness that the plight of those around the world hardly engages our attention.
By this I mean that the press has spent a lot of energy on the Falklands War (so much that it was hard at one time to imagine the front page of a serious newspaper with any other lead story). Now that is all over, the threat of nuclear war is drawing more coverage. To fill in the gaps there has been the Royal Family.
For the Catholic Church, the focus has been rather different. As with the weather, so with the Church in the 1980s — each year seems to be an annus mirabilis. Last year the Pope was shot. This year he came to Britain. For many Catholics those were the events of the year. For the successful outcome of both episodes they have much cause for thanks.
Most of the remarkable happenings in the Church over the year can be traced back to the Pope. If he has no other strategy other than that proclaimed in his encyclical Redemptor Hominis at the beginning of his reign, his pragmatic actions have been extraordinarily farreaching, and disconcerting for some.
Pope John Paul began the year with the Jesuits, as it were, kept behind in the formroom till they learned order under the watchful (if presbyopic) eye of a senior monitor (Fr Paolo Dezza). By the end of the year he found that there had been little enough squabbling, pinching and smoking of cigarettes behind the desk lid in their ranks for him to be able to allow them to elect their own head prefect (Superior General).
The Pope also seemed to take a much more grown up attitude over the Falklands than most commentators in Britain managed. And how his appeals for peace were applauded when once he had managed to reach our own island. He went soon after to be with the Argentinians. The Pope's authentically high principles made his personal appeals over Poland, Central America (which he promised to visit next year) and Lebanon (which he offered to visit on the spot; Mother Teresa went instead with his blessing) more than platitudes.
Under Pope John Paul II, the Church is changing. The presumption of Catholics is that this is the work of the Holy Spirit. This certainly makes more sense to the world now than when Pope John Paul I died after a month in office.
The Curia may have complained that the Pope is not with them enough. But he does plough through paperwork, and even manage to produce a large amount himself over and above his speeches for international visits (which this year meant primarily Spain, with its 30 million Catholics). For Maundy Thursday he produced a meditation for priests with a plea from the heart to embrace celibacy.
The Pope has also favoured Opus Dei, the mainly lay organisation, with a new legal status, under a scheme for pastoral initiatives outlined in Vatican II. What he has not done is to give the final approval to the new Code of Canon Law, which was expected first on Pentecost Sunday (when the Pope was asking for peace under the baking sun in Coventry). Then the first Sunday of Advent was confidently predicted (even by the Catholic Herald). It is still being finally revised. On the home front, the big non-event was the building of the new Cathedral at Cardiff at the expense of Sir Julian Hodge. The Pope had blessed the foundation stone at the beginning of June. No more has been heard.
Indeed, the English bishops seem to have turned not doing things into a learned profession. The Racial Justice Commission proposed that Rastafarians should be invited to use church halls. The bishops welcomed their recommendations. I can't say that I have noticed much action. More recently the Social Welfare Commission proposed action over the anti-Christian circumstances of our penal system. At least the bishops will be saying Masses in the prisons tomorrow.
No doubt realising that it was not much use approving reports which no one else would take much notice of, the bishops have decided to shake up the whole system of advisory commissions. The professional members of these bodies do not seem awfully keen.
Ecumenical endeavours have thriven. Dr Runcie embraced the Pope. Arcic was coldshouldered by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but everyone pretended this had not happened. The Catholic bishops decided to set up a new inter-Church discussion body to bring in members of the British Council of Churches. As usual the Church has been persecuted, especially in Czechoslovakia where Fr Jan Barta died in gaol and Fr Frantisak Lizna joined the growing band of witnesses to be put behind bars. The difficulties of Catholics in Poland and China are still obvious, as are the different sufferings of members of the Church in South America, South Africa and South East Asia.
From within, scandal has been generated by the convoluted dealings of the "Vatican Bank" headed by muscular but ill-starred Archbishop Marcinkus. At the height of the scandal, Malcolm Muggeridge and his wife joined the Church to the delighted welcome of English Catholics. The Muggeridges seem to have concentrated more on the likes of Mother Teresa than on Archbishop Marcinkus.
In the arts, biographies (good and bad) were written of Catholics including: Graham Sutherland, Henry Williamson, St Teresa, the newly canonized St Maximilian Kolbe, and Thomas More. Catholics uneasily celebrated the centenary of James Joyce's birth. Clifford Longley explained that he was still a Catholic. Mgr Gilby had his portrait painted.
Among Catholics who were buried in the past year were our own beloved Patrick O'Donovan, Sir Hannibal Publius Scicluna, aged 101, Cardinal Cody (who said on his deathbed that he forgave his enemies but God would not), Cardinal Felici, Cardinal Benelli, Andrew Sandham, the oldest test cricketer, Elizabeth FitzRoy, Princess Grace of Monaco, and Cardinal Carlos Carmelo de Vasconcellos Motta, the oldest cardinal. One person who did not die was a baby boy, christened Timothy John, who survived an abortion at Luton and Dunstable Hospital.
There were plenty of striking little events in the year. A homosexual group was found to have been using an address system at Archbishop's House, Westminster. Fr Edward Schillebeeckx received the Erasmus prize from Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. Lord Furness received a sword as the second professed Knight of Malta in England. P.C. Charles Brown retired after 17 years of shepherding Walsingham pilgrims. Archbishop Milingo went to Rome where he remained under close supervision while his involvement with 'Faith healing' was being examined. Mr Justice Comyn expounded the rights of tea-ladies.