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The Three Popes: Examples of faith, hope and love

The last four decades have seen the Catholic Church guided by three different popes. Each brought a different gift to the Church. Patrick Giddy reflects on the mission of the three pontiffs against the three marks of the Christian life: faith, hope and love.

“In short, there are three things that endure: faith, hope and love; but of these, the greatest is love.” 

1 Cor 13:13

Our lives are lived through our ideas, our actions or habits of will. But mostly, our lives are lived in accordance with our attachments. Life is less about our ideas of things or our habits of choice, and more about what we feel about things, what we truly love.

Faith refers to our ideas about things, our beliefs. We say the Creed at Mass as a testimony of what we believe. What effect does it have on our lives? Hope refers to our horizon of action. What do we see as possible to do? And love refers to our deepest feelings, our response to our ideas and our possible actions. When we meet an old friend, we ask, how are you? How are you feeling? To lose touch with our feelings is to lose touch with ourselves. It is to lose our soul.


Karol Wotyla was a man of action. He represented the typical frame of thinking of our age and culture. We act on the world. We can change it. He saw his native Poland through the lens of hope. He saw that Poland, under the oppressive rule of the mighty Soviet Union, could be changed.

As Pope he took the name of his two famous predecessors: Pope John XXIII who opened the church to the world through the Vatican II Council; and Paul VI who thought that the ship, rocked by the waves of change, needed steadying as it began to feel the impact of letting go  of the medieval and authoritarian leadership style before the Council.

He wanted to influence and change the world.

Wotyla, now John Paul II, wanted to be the most effective in leading this vast institution. He brought this very modern attitude of effectiveness to the Church structures. He wanted to influence and change the world. He used all of the modern techniques of communication to do so. He appointed people he judged would strengthen his team to high positions. He saw the youth of the world as reason for hope, for optimism. And they responded. Like many other highly successful captains of the modern world, he found it difficult to step down.


Professor and Cardinal, Josef Ratzinger was an academic. He lived in a world of ideas. He worked closely with the best of the thinkers of the twentieth century, especially his German colleague the Jesuit Karl Rahner. But he was also happy to engage those with whom he disagreed, notably the well-known and very influential critic of the Church, Fr Hans Kung.

He distrusted the superficiality of much of contemporary culture, the idea that everything is relative, and urged a return to the rich sources of our religion and our world. His pontificate serves as a reminder that we should not neglect our heritage. Everything today lends itself to manipulation and exploitation. We have forgotten the timeless truths of our cosmos.

His pontificate serves as a reminder that we should not neglect our heritage.

As Pope Benedict XVI, he had a very different attitude to his predecessor. This would guide us back to the truth. Faith never contradicts reason, he taught. This was his central message when he addressed the British Houses of Parliament, the first Pope to do so since the Reformation. There is no need to fear a whole lot of perceived Catholic superstitions.

As Pope, he took the name of Benedict, the hero and saviour of Europe after the Dark Ages who built up a small but very influential group of committed men and women. They formed a solid subgroup within the broader, and very unstable, society. He brought the light of his intellect to bear on the new catechism for the Catholic church, and to a very controversial debate with Islam. And then, very sensibly, stepped down.


Jorge Bergoglio was a leader of a very different kind in his native Argentina. The country was divided. Some saw the dictatorship as bringing law and order. Others, including some clergy, found in Marxism a way to mobilize the people to overthrow the unjust regime. What was Archbishop Bergoglio to do? He saw his Christian vocation as standing with, alongside, the poor in their daily struggles.

Things on the ground do not easily fit into nice categories, the good on the one side and the evil on the other. He wished that those who look on from afar – those in Rome – would appreciate the nuances of the situation and give more authority to the local church.

Everybody is struggling to make something of their lives in difficult situations. And who is he to judge? The truths of the faith are important, but they are there to serve humanity not vice-versa. The structures of the church should not encourage a “career cleric”, as if it were simply another multinational corporation and you can climb the ladder to success. No, it must offer something different, a truly human community.

The truths of the faith are important, but they are there to serve humanity not vice-versa.

Above all Pope Francis’ approach is one of trust in ordinary people. Love them as they are. Show that the way forward is never through violence or aggression. On the surface, you might seem ineffective. But remember who we have as model for our lives. At his execution the term “king” was used to mock his followers: Jesus was a joke. But we know that it was that very ineffectiveness that had the greatest effect. The one who gave up his promising career in the Church to live a life of poverty is the one Bergoglio chose to call himself after, Francis.

Hope, faith, and love, but the greatest of these is love.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


  1. I appreciate how open Pope Francis has been to embracing members of the Catholic church previously outcast, and how vocal he has been about ending the secrecy that surrounds child sex abuse in the Catholic church. Of the three, he is the only one who seems to espouse the values you speak of.

    Josef Ratzinger protected child abusers. For years. He did nothing and people suffered. He stole hope from thousands of children because he was in a position to act and he wilfully chose not to. Instead, he elevated and protected priests like Cardinal Bernard Law.

    Karol Wojtyła position against the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV caused untold suffering and death, especially in Africa. He used the blind faith of his followers as a mechanism for subverting medical science that would have saved them. He also turned a blind eye to sex abuse scandals, even while issuing a public apology for them.