The phrase “Electoral College” has been much discussed recently around the election of the new President of the United States of America. An older “Electoral College,” the Papal Conclave of the College of Cardinals, meets in the Sistine Chapel of the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican whenever a new pope is to be elected. In these reflections on the three most recent popes, I interweave comment, poetry, and autobiography.
Pope John Paul II
In planning the momentous service in Canterbury Cathedral in 1982, a key question was who would sit on St. Augustine’s chair: Pope John Paul II or the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie? The dean, Victor de Waal, solved the issue with great insight. The Canterbury Gospels, given by Pope Gregory the Great for the mission of St. Augustine, who arrived in Kent in AD 597, would be placed on the chair. The Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury would sit on either side, under God’s Word.
I remember watching the funeral of Pope John Paul II live on television on April 8, 2005, in the vicarage of St Mary Islington, London. The chasubles of the Cardinals billowed in the breeze. I was intrigued by the wind turning over the pages of the gospel book on the top of his coffin and wondered what it signified. That was the seed of this poem, written that day:
In St Peter’s Square,
Presidents and Prime Ministers,
Princes and people gather.
A simple cypress-wood coffin
Is surmounted by the gospel book.
He said he lived his life
Under the word of God.
The ruffling wind of the Spirit
Bears witness, turning its pages.
A previous Pope,
John the Twenty-Third,
The great caretaker,
In surprising wisdom
Opened the windows of the office.
The rushing wind of the Spirit
Blew piles of paper in the air,
Upturning, updating, unfolding
John Paul the Second,
The great survivor
Of Nazi invasion and
The poet and playwright,
Priest and professor:
Restressing of tradition,
Regression of liberation,
Redressing of primacy.
Solidity of Petrine rock,
Solidarity of Polish stock,
Stumbling of Soviet bloc.
More alive than ever,
Witness to the watching world.
When Pope John Paul II visited the UK in May 1982, I was a curate at St Mark Kensal Rise, London, and travelled to Cardiff Arms Park, the Welsh Rugby Stadium, to be part of the celebrations. Next to me on the coach of ecumenical pilgrims from London was a Black Catholic schoolboy, and we discussed the concept of vocation. He was surprised that, as an Anglican, I was encouraging him to consider the priesthood in the Catholic Church.
Near the end of my time as vicar of St Mary Islington in 2008, 26 years later, I invited the new Black Catholic Priest in Islington, Fr Howard James, to lunch in the Turkish restaurant next to the vicarage. When I asked where he grew up, he replied “Kensal Rise.” We were both overjoyed when we worked out that he was my neighbor on that coach in 1982.
Pope Benedict XVI
I recall thinking that since Cardinal Ratzinger had presided at the funeral of Pope John Paul II so meticulously, and had been his right hand man for so long, then he would be the most likely candidate to succeed him. When he was elected, the witty headline in The Sun newspaper proclaimed him, “Papa Ratzi.”
This poem was written in St Mary’s Vicarage, on the day of his Inauguration, April 24, 2005.
In St Peter’s Square,
Holy smoke and a shy smile
Of Bavarian piety and curial power.
A hard act to follow,
They chose a hard man.
In thinking, penetrative;
In doctrine, conservative;
In power, effective;
In discipline, pressive:
Enforcer becomes caretaker
To take care of Europe;
Lost continent, now
The option for mission;
Perhaps, for some time,
Last Pope from Europe.
Africa, Latin America,
Burgeon and beckon.
A conservative caretaker,
Astounded the sixties:
May Benedict the Sixteenth
Surprise us with blessing.
Westminster Hall, built in 1099, has the largest medieval timber roof in northern Europe, dating from 1393. The trial and condemnation of both Sir Thomas More (1535) and King Charles I (1649) took place there. On September 17, 2010, it provided a unique setting for Pope Benedict XVI to address British society in front of about 2,000 politicians, diplomats, academics and business leaders.
I was present at the next event, which was the moving ecumenical service of Evensong at Westminster Abbey. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, welcomed the Pope, who responded warmly. The Archbishop was wearing the pectoral cross given to him by Pope John Paul II and the episcopal ring given to Michael Ramsey by Pope Paul VI in 1966. They both reverenced the Canterbury Gospels with a kiss.
What was not planned, but happened spontaneously and significantly, was that the Pope kissed the altar and the Archbishop of Canterbury followed his lead.
Later, I reflected on the whole visit for Fulcrum: “The Ambiguous Legacy of John Henry Newman: Reflections on the Papal Visit Oct 2010.”
Pope Francis I
On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI astounded the city of Rome and the world with his announcement in Italian that he was resigning the papacy on February 28, 2013. He was the first pope to resign in 600 years, since Gregory XII in 1415, and the first to do so on his own initiative since Celestine V in 1294.
In a four-minute speech to the subsequent Papal Conclave, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, from Buenos Aires, said that the next pope should be, “a man who, from the contemplation of Jesus Christ and from the adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to move outside itself to the existential peripheries.”
On February 28, 2013, I recollect sitting in front of the television in Sherborne House, Dorset, waiting for the famous white smoke to drift into the air above the Apostolic Palace. I was surprised when the 76-year-old Cardinal from Argentina was elected — although, in my previous poem, I had indeed written that “Africa and Latin America burgeon and beckon.”
I wrote the third poem in this series on March 15, 2013, during a monthly Quiet Day at Hilfield Friary, Dorset, the center for the Anglican Franciscans in England.
In Saint Peter’s Square:
“Buona sera.” “Good evening.”
From the ends of the world,
a friendly greeting, typical of Saint Francis.
Italian parentage, Argentine heritage;
Jesuit order, Franciscan humility.
In Buenos Aires:
limousine and palace were left on the wayside,
for bus and flat, with people on the wayside.
For the Conclave:
Latin America beckons,
and bequeaths a Pope.
periphery becomes central,
Papacy becomes simpler,
Curia become curiouser.
May Francis the First
open the windows of the Church
for fair winds of the Spirit.
The ministry of the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was inaugurated the same week as the ministry of Pope Francis I, in March 2013. Their first meeting in the Vatican had a surprising start.
“I am more senior than you,” said the Pope.
“Yes, your Holiness,” replied the Archbishop, wondering why he was immediately bringing up centuries of division and discord.
Then, with a twinkle in his eye, the Pope continued:
“By two days.”
Angst was punctured by humour and personal relationship.
Three years later, on October 5, 2016 in Rome, Pope Francis gave the Archbishop a specially made replica of the crozier head associated with Pope Gregory the Great. The original crozier head had been lent from San Gregorio to Canterbury Cathedral for the Primates’ Meeting in January that year.
The context was Vespers at the Church of San Gregorio, Rome, where the Pope and the Archbishop commissioned 19 pairs of Catholic and Anglican bishops for united mission. It was very moving to be present at this historic service. This was the monastery where the Archbishop’s first predecessor, Augustine, was Abbot. From there, Pope Gregory the Great sent him to evangelise the English and gave him the Canterbury Gospels, which are now kept in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The original crozier head was present at Vespers, next to an icon of Christ, Gregory, and Augustine.
Later, I reflected on the whole visit for the Mission Theology in the Anglican Communion project, “Rome: 50th Anniversary Symposium and Lecture.”
Karol, Joseph, and Jorge, became John Paul, Benedict, and Francis: charismatic leader, academic theologian, and friend of the poor.
Thanks be to God for the gift of these three servants of the servants of God.
Republished, with permission, from the original article on Covenant here
 These three poems were published first on Fulcrum, soon after they were written, and more recently in my Nourishing Connections (Canterbury Press, 2020). A Zoom discussion of the book, with Cambridge friends, theologian David Ford, literature scholar Jennifer Wallace, and poet Malcolm Guite, is available here, recorded on 24 October 2020.
 The following books I have found to be particularly profound and perceptive: Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (Yale, 1997, revised and expanded 2015); Jonathan Kwitny, Man of the Century: Pope John Paul II (Little, Brown and Company, 1997); John L. Allen Jr., Pope Benedict XVI: a Biography of Joseph Ratzinger (Continuum, 2005); and Paul Valelly, Untying the Knots: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism (Bloomsbury, 2013, revised and expanded in 2015).
The Rt Revd Dr Graham Kings is Honorary Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Ely and Research Associate at the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide.