However, I received something of a jolt, early one morning in 1978, when I was feeding my baby son, and switched on the Today programme to be greeted by the news that the first Pope John Paul (“De medietate lunae”) had died, after a reign of only 33 days. The cryptic phrase supposedly applicable to him, “Concerning the middle of the moon” had suddenly turned into “The interval of a month”.
And, as most of us probably know, the “prophecies” are running out. Our present Holy Father, supposedly “De gloria olivae” (Concerning the glory of the olive”), is allegedly to be followed by “Petrus Romanus” ……… and then? The destruction of Rome? The end of the world? Or did the compiler of these epithets simply run out of ideas?
It’s interesting to try to find links which seem to make sense of our present Holy Father’s “prophecy”. Some have mentioned the Olivetans, a branch of the Benedictine Order. That seems a bit tortuous. Others wonder if peace will be a strong theme of this pontificate. This is rather vague. In any case, we can only really judge by looking back at the end of a pontificate; and I hope this one continues for many more years. Despite all our travails,“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive…”
But here is another possibility. The Holy Father is taking all the steps he can to reunite Christendom, by which it appears he is thinking both of the Eastern Orthodox and of all those members of the post-Reformation ecclesial bodies who are of Catholic mind and heart. And this he does, undaunted by the ragged edges of the process, or by what the management gurus call the “difficult people” (to put it mildly!) to whom his hand has been held out in friendship at the start of this path of uncertain length.
He is trying to begin the work of re-grafting as many as possible onto the tree which is the source of all truth and life. It would be easy to think of the “tree” as the vine. We often hear Christ’s words: “I am the vine; you are the branches.” But there is another tree: the olive; and this is the tree to which the image of grafting – and, most importantly at present, of re-grafting – is applied in the New Testament.
And I think he has an even greater ambition, stretching beyond his own pontificate.
You may like to read these words of the Holy Father on 15th May 2009, at Ben Gurion Airport, at the end of his visit to Israel. I think his words - very simple and courteous and diplomatic - give an insight into his hopes:
Mr President, you and I planted an olive tree at your residence on the day that I arrived in Israel. The olive tree, as you know, is an image used by Saint Paul to describe the very close relations between Christians and Jews. Paul describes in his Letter to the Romans how the Church of the Gentiles is like a wild olive shoot, grafted onto the cultivated olive tree which is the People of the Covenant (cf. 11:17-24). We are nourished from the same spiritual roots.
And this - with thanks to EWTN - is from Chapter 11 of St Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
15 For if their rejection [that is, Israel’s rejection of the Messiah] means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?
16 If the dough offered as first fruits is holy, so is the whole lump; and if the root is holy, so are the branches.
17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree,
18 do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.
19 You will say, "Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in."
20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe.
21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.
22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.
23 And even the others, if they do not persist in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.
24 For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.
More and more, I feel that this phrase, “The glory of the olive”, applies to our dear Pope Benedict.