What Gorbachev and Pope Francis have in common

Having just finished a fine biography of Mikhail Gorbachev by William Taubman, I have been struck by some striking similarities between Gorbachev’s career and that of Pope Francis.

Both reached the top against the odds. Gorbachev’s background and private views should have ensured he was never promoted to a position of real power. Both his grandfathers had been arrested and tortured by Stalin; as a young boy growing up in the countryside, Gorbachev saw and disapproved of Stalin’s vicious policy of collectivisation and murder and deportation of innocent peasant families; he believed the system urgently needed reform. A brilliant student and organiser, he worked his way to the very top and began his reforms, by which time it was too late for the system to stop him.

After coming a surprising second in the 2005 papal conclave, it was thought that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s chances of becoming pope had passed. Most observers knew little about him; his opponents made sure to highlight his stormy early career as head of the Jesuits in Argentina. By the time of the surprise conclave in 2011, it was thought his advancing years would eliminate him from consideration. Yet he was elected, despite the efforts of traditionalists to stop his candidacy.

Both made an extraordinary initial impact on the world. Gorbachev was young, energetic, open, charismatic – a Soviet leader unlike any of his predecessors. From his first appearance on the balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square, Francis made an indelible impression on those watching. His simplicity, humility, and humour were a breath of fresh air.

Both had a reformist agenda. Gorbachev spoke about the need for glasnost and perestroika, and began to try to transform the Communist Party and the USSR. Pope Francis spoke of a ‘church on the street,’ emphasising the need for mercy and compassion in dealing with people in difficult personal situations, and for a synodal model of church where there would be greater dialogue and openness to change.

Both encountered strong opposition from within almost from the start. In the beginning Gorbachev was able to placate or outmanoeuvre his opponents but eventually, they began to get the better of him. His finally stepped down several months after a failed coup against him in August 1991.

Opposition to Pope Francis has been intensifying in conservative circles for several years. They have agitated against him in public, tried to block his initiatives, and even to force his resignation so they can get a more like-minded man in his place. That battle continues.

Despite the tremendous pressures they faced, both had an innate optimism and remarkable energy that kept them going even in the face of extraordinary obstacles and setbacks.

Gorbachev achieved great things – an end to the old cold war and to communism in the old CSSR, the freeing up of eastern Europe without bloodshed, the reunification of Germany. Pope Francis has promoted inclusion and reform. Though his vision has not been realised he has given us hope. We pray that the transformation and renewal he has promised may come about.

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Another difficult week for the Irish Catholic Church 

I watched them streaming into Mass this morning, the regulars – old, young and in-between – and I marveled at their faith and commitment. After another awful week for the church in Ireland, with allegations of all sorts of strange goings-on in Maynooth, still they came. After a week of lurid headlines and wild speculation about life in the national seminary, still these faithful people came out to Mass. If I were a layman in Ireland today, I’m not sure I would.

It’s been another embarrassing week for priests in Ireland and for the church we serve. I couldn’t help wondering how many people in the pews today are looking up at the altar and asking silent questions about the celebrant. Is he gay or straight? Has he ever been up to anything? Is he on one of those dating apps they are talking about?

And even if they are not asking those questions about their own curate or parish priest, who they know and are comfortable around, they will be wondering about priests in general, that ragged body of men out there who struggle on despite the storms that periodically swell around them. How many of them are gay or straight or perverted in some way? What do they do behind closed doors?

And that’s the tragedy of this past week. The stories about the national seminary don’t just affect those connected to or associated with Maynooth, they affect everyone who wears a collar. They impact on all clergy. All feel upset and embarrassed by association.

The glee with which some people on social media have commented about the Maynooth affair is also extraordinary to behold. They delight in any negative story to do with the church. They glory in it. They don’t distinguish between one priest and another or between one part of the church and another. As far as they are concerned all are one and the same. It’s understandable that people react against the church’s past dominance, and delight in its death rattle, but when they rejoice in the church’s misery, they rejoice in my misery too.

I don’t know what’s going on in Maynooth. I have been there less than ten times in my life, but I am certain that the vast majority of those in Maynooth are good men doing their best. Obviously, some type of review or reform will take place, but it’s difficult to act based on anonymous letters or in response to the agitation of the Catholic right. 

This story will pass in a few days and life will go on, but the fundamental issues around mandatory celibacy and church teaching on sexuality remain to be addressed, as do questions about how priests should be trained and even the nature of priesthood itself. 

Meanwhile, ordinary priests will continue to administer the sacraments and to do their best, even as their morale sinks lower and wearing the clerical collar leaves them open to suspicion or ridicule.