From John Paul II to Benedict XVI: Memories, Analyses, Fears and Hopes
John Paul II’s 25-year-long pontificate engraved many indelible recollections on one’s memory, which feed fears that undermine hope and cry out for analysis, a task that, of course, always has a personal quality.
Juan Hernández Pico, SJ
Four days after John Paul II’s death, with the streets of Rome and St. Peter’s Square still teeming with people, I found myself in a meeting of Jesuits, scheduled months before. We tried to analyze the new ecclesial and political situation that the Pope’s passing would bring in the world and particularly in Central America. One of my colleagues said, “It’s very hard for us Jesuits to evaluate John Paul II’s pontificate impartially. Let’s not kid ourselves. Our hearts still carry the open wound of what he did to our superior general, Pedro Arrupe, when he had just been struck down by the stroke from which he would never recover.” None of us took issue with his comment, yet envío has to write about an event that will probably define an era. And that task has fallen to me.
Puebla 1979: Neither doubt nor tendernessI first saw John Paul II in person in Puebla, Mexico, in January 1979. Before that, I had heard his vibrant cry from the balcony of St. Peter’s the day they elected him: “Do not be afraid of getting close to Jesus Christ!” I felt those words to be genuine, but his gesture to be almost threatening, frightening. In Puebla I met the Pope as the enormous majority of people in this world have met him: from afar and through his gestures and words. At that moment, he seemed to me a person full of strength and determined to exercise his authority more by iron discipline than with dialogue and open arms. I didn’t sense that bit of humble doubt that had been Paul VI’s gift or the firm tenderness that had radiated from John XXIII.
Many people called Pope Paul VI “Hamlet,” yet such a super-intelligent man in contact with such a contradictory century as the twentieth—accelerated in its progress, unjust in the distribution of its benefits and ferocious in many of its “final” solutions—could not fail to doubt the scope of his authority unless he accompanied it with dialogue and saintliness. Many people had also called Juan XXIII the “good Pope.” Yet his tenderness was rooted in the firm conviction that the times of condemnation had passed and the Church had to open its windows to the fresh, new breezes of the world beyond the Church that could not have lost all the goodness God had given it.
When the Latin American Bishops’ Conference was held in Puebla, over 16 years had already passed since John XXIII had inaugurated the Second Vatican Council. John Paul II’s inauguration speech in Puebla seemed to me a return to a possessed, intransigent, purely dogmatic truth that admitted no uncertainty: “the truth about Christ, about the Church and about man” that required submission rather than making people free, as Jesus proposed, and leaned toward authoritarianism while it was at it.
May 1981: The next memory I have of Pope John Paul II up close was on May 13, 1981. I was in Bilbao. My mother’s health was failing at the time, and I was at her side, reading a book. When she gave a gasp, I raised my eyes and saw a terrified look on her face. She was listening to the radio and heard the breaking news about the attack on John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square. We turned on the television in time to see the ambulance taking away the gravely wounded pope. Violence had penetrated to the heart of the Vatican and would mark John Paul II’s health for the rest of his days.
Gravely wounded and surer than ever
Definitive proof of who was behind the attempt carried out by the Turk Ali Agca was never found, but the most compelling clues pointed to the Bulgarian intelligence service. After his triumphal visit to Poland in 1979, John Paul II had already become an important factor in the decline that was mortally corroding the existing socialism, although it was still not manifested in all of its virulence.
During the ensuing months, as the pope teetered between life and death on two separate occasions, I felt that he might emerge from his brush with the most definitive moment of life with a little less certainty. Perhaps he would become a little more familiar with weakness and mercy, which are indispensable to understanding the humanity and compassion of the successor of Peter, an impulsive and generous man, but weak, humbly loving and boldly open. John Paul II had titled his second encyclical letter in 1980 Dives in misericordia (Rich mercy), referring to God the Father as Jesus Christ had portrayed in him the scriptures, with paternal-maternal features.
But his physical recovery made John Paul II even more certain. In October 1981 he sent Cardinal Casaroli, his secretary of state, to the room of the ailing Pedro Arrupe, General of the Society of Jesus, with a letter announcing a pontifical intervention of the Society, naming the 80-year-old Jesuit Paolo Dezza his personal representative, implicitly annulling Arrupe’s own appointment of Vincent O’Keefe, one of his four general assistants.
Central America 1983: The trilogy of my relatively close encounters with Pope John Paul II culminated in March 1983 with his visit to Central America. He began in Costa Rica and went next to Nicaragua. The then-organizer of papal visits, Jesuit Roberto Tucci, former director of Vatican Radio and today a Cardinal who is too old to vote, mentioned to another Jesuit that the pope was coming to Nicaragua “very predisposed.”
Imitating the Polish model
The enormous multitude that filled July 19 Plaza to overflowing was unforgettable. The international press spoke of 700,000 people, nearly a fifth of the country’s entire population. At one point, 17 women seated in front of the pontifical dais lifted up photos of their sons, volunteer militiamen killed only two days earlier in the first important ambush of the counterrevolutionary war financed by President Reagan. It was the first stage of a war that would later become much more complicated, playing on the anger of the peasantry with the Sandinista government’s policies, which had an urban slant. At that point, however, the enemy was still mainly former National Guardsmen from the Somoza dictatorship, based in camps in Honduras, and they had few sympathizers among that vast crowd. The mothers asked John Paul II to pray for their sons, but he refused to do.
When the Pope began his homily—an exhortation to Church unity around the bishops and suppression of any attempt to encourage the “popular Church”—a sea of voices interrupted him with the chant “We want peace.” The pope’s powerful response was unforgettable. Raising his hand not charitably but threateningly, he repeatedly shouted out the single word: Silencio! I still have the cover of Time Magazine with the image of the Pope in his gold embroidered white robes ordering hundreds of thousands of people to be silent; it’s not his best face. Failing to shout down the rising chorus, John Paul II, in the same threateningly sonorous tone, exclaimed, “The first who wants peace is the Church!”
Whether or not Nicaragua’s revolutionary leadership had a strategy to divide the Church with a social movement adhering to a popular Church, the pope evidently saw it that way. In response, he applied to Latin America the same model of struggle used by Poland’s Catholic Church and the Eastern European Churches in general, clustered around Cardinals Stepinac (Yugoslav Croatian), Mindszenty (Hungarian) and Wyszinszki (Polish), against “communist” regimes installed not by a revolution of national liberation, as in Nicaragua, but by the Soviet Army at the end of World War II. John Paul II’s accusing finger shaking over the kneeling figure of Father Ernesto Cardinal, Nicaragua’s minister of culture and renowned poet, contrasted starkly with the image from San Salvador the following day, when he shook hands with Major Roberto D’Aubisson, founder of the ARENA party, president of the Salvadoran parliament and main suspect in the assassination of Monsignor Romero three years earlier.
For all that, the pope kneeled at the foot of Monsignor Romero’s tomb in San Salvador’s Cathedral and prayed there for a long time. And while still in Costa Rica, he asked General Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s head of state at the time thanks to a coup, not to execute the death sentences that had been handed down by faceless tribunals and judges against accused leftists. The “born again” neo-Pentecostal Ríos Montt, strategist of a total “scorched earth” war against indigenous peasants that would end in 600 massacres, ignored the plea and executed the accused just before the pope entered the country. John Paul II made his voice heard clearly and powerfully in Guatemala against that barbarity and in favor of the indigenous peoples. All of this now belongs to history.
The pope who helped end the Cold WarPope John Paul II had made his first papal visit to Poland, his homeland, in June 1979, accompanied by his then secretary of state, Cardinal Casaroli, architect of Paul VI’s strategy toward the East (Ostpolitik). Casaroli and Pope Paul VI had continued the gradual rapprochement with the communist regimes initiated by John XXIII, laid down in the encyclical Pacem in Terris and put into practice when Khrushchev’s son-in-law was received in a private audience in 1963. But John Paul II dramatically replaced it with a gamble on his personal influence over the masses.
There is no shortage of analysts who insist that the Polish state seemed to disappear during his visit in 1979, overshadowed by the uncontainable force of the multitudes that received the pope all around the country. Evidently, the decline of communism in Poland was already well underway due to the failure of the collectivist state economy and the weight of the enormous foreign debt contracted by the communist governments with western countries.
By the following year, the Solidarity union movement—in alliance with socialist and nationalist dissident intellectuals such as Jacek Kuron, Adam Mischnik, Leszek Kolakowski (from Oxford)—had already held its first huge strikes in Gdansk, giving Lech Walesa a platform on which to mount his leadership.
These two events must inevitably be linked. Karol Woytila, cardinal archbishop of Krakow, was not the main leader of Polish Catholicism before being elected to the papacy on October 16, 1978. This role had belonged to his mentor, Cardinal Wyszynszki, archbishop of Warsaw, who had passed through the jails of the communist regime and come out of them unscathed. Nonetheless, once elected pope, John Paul II used all the force of his charismatic personality to play the role of moral and spiritual leader of a social movement whose political objective was to return Poland—and the entire Eastern European Slavic world— to democratic and national liberty, free from Soviet influence. Responding to Solidarity’s demands, the Moscow press had spoken at the time of “an anti-socialist, anti-Soviet orgy.”
Solidarity’s strength came from being a massive and dissident workers’ movement in one of the countries understood to be a worker’s state. The inexorable rise of the Solidarity movement obliged General Jaruzelski—the army was by then the only part of the communist regime with prestige and popular acceptance—to declare a state of emergency in December 1981 “to avoid greater evils,” by which he meant avoiding the invasion by Soviet troops stationed on the border. For that reason John Paul did not travel to Poland between 1980 and 1982, although he did make two more visits before 1989, once in 1983 and again in 1987, when Gorbachov was head of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party and of the USSR itself.
The pope who agreed with Ronald ReaganThe period 1981 to 1989 also corresponded with the eight years of Ronald Reagan’s two-term presidency in the United States. Reagan’s rhetoric against the Soviet Union—the “Evil Empire” to him—is well known. The arms race he launched based on the information technology revolution was perhaps less known, but certainly more effective. The cost of rearming the United States, together with Reagan’s way of understanding the state’s supply-side support role in the economy—that is, cutting taxes for the huge transnationals and most important investors—was an enormous current account deficit, just as has happened today with the second Bush. But it is no less true that the Reagan administration launched this policy against the USSR hoping that the attempt by Breshnev, Andropov and Chernenko to respond to the threat by maintaining nuclear parity and the power of dissuasion with transcontinental missiles would bankrupt it.
Although Ronald Reagan was ten years older than John Paul II, the two men’s lives had some notable similarities. Like Wojtyla, Reagan was born in a small town far from his country’s capital; like the young Wojtyla he was an actor, based his beliefs on strict family morality—anti-abortion above all—and took his support from the “moral majority” to reassert the family as society’s fundamental nucleus. Their anti-Soviet objectives also coincided materially. Yet another coincidence is that on March 30, 1981, only a month and a half before the attempted assassination of Pope Juan Paul II, President Reagan was the object of a nearly fatal attack.
Ronald Reagan was the first US President to open an embassy in the Vatican and subsequently allowed the Apostolic Delegation in Washington to be converted into a nunciature. A lot has already been suggested about Governor Reagan’s financial support of the Polish Solidarity movement and of John Paul’s trips to Poland, although it is impossible to prove, at least for now.
What is evident, however, is that John Paul II’s trip to Nicaragua in 1983 and his later appointment of Archbishop of Managua Miguel Obando as cardinal helped undermine support for the Sandinista government, already shaken by serious political, economic and military mistakes, as well as crass errors in its relations with the Catholic Church. In November 1983, US troops invaded the small Caribbean island of Grenada and brought down the revolutionary government there. The invasion of Nicaragua seemed imminent at that moment. In the end, the important thing was not whether it was actually planned or not, but that it continually hung over the Sandinistas’ heads as a credible threat and forced the government’s military build-up.
None of this leads us to conclude that there necessarily was a strategic conspiracy between John Paul II’s Vatican and Reagan’s imperial government. Coinciding objectives are not necessarily strategic. In practice the two men simply functioned according to the firmness of the ideologies or beliefs that sustained them: Cold War and National Security interests on the one side, and on the other a profound distrust of atheist communism and rejection of the existing form of socialism because it had been largely imposed by the Soviet Army. In this regard, it seems fair to call the John Paul II’s pontificate “political.” And it seems equally fair to stress that the political aspect was a consequence of the way this pope understood his faith, the ethics he derived from it and his commitment to his Polish homeland.
The first pope of Pope John Paul II will fundamentally be remembered for this political role, which grew enormously—compared, for example, to the influence his predecessors exercised through the radio—through his intelligent use of the media and of mass transport. From this perspective, John Paul II was the first pope of globalization and postmodernity.
globalization and postmodernity
John XXIII and Paul VI were barely precursors in this terrain. The former was the “good pope” because he convoked the Second Vatican Council, more Catholic than ever because of the presence in Rome of three thousand bishops, many theologians from all continents and lay observers, and incipiently ecumenical because of the presence of Christian observers who were not from the Roman Church. Vatican II, which was followed on television, radio and the press all over the world, had a more rapid globalizing effect than ever before in the already global ecclesial village.
For his part, Paul VI visited nearly all the other continents—Asia (India), Africa (Uganda), America (Bogota and New York)—and wrote three encyclicals with a globalizing theme. In 1962, there was the Ecclesiam suam, on the issue of global dialogue with humanity in a plural world inhabited by non-believers, believers of other non-Christian religions, Christians separated from Rome and Catholics. In 1967, he issued the Populorum progressio, on the urgency of global solidarity to deal with the challenge that opulent peoples pose to starving peoples and to promote the development of poorer peoples with a program of social justice. The third, in 1975, was the Evangelii nuntiandi, on human liberation as an element of comprehensive evangelical liberation and the acculturation of Christianity in today’s plural cultures.
John Paul II’s use of and exposure to the major media beat all existing records, and it will be hard for his successors to top him: 104 trips outside of Italy and 130 countries visited—with China and Russia being the only big names missing from the list. It could be said that he lived through the media. And on his visits, he always took up already global themes.
Pastoral strategy: The pilgrim pope’s travels John Paul did not use the media and his trips only for political ends. He designed his pastoral strategy for the “new evangelization”—one of his most heartfelt passions, even if its content always remained a little vague—as a “traveler’s” strategy, or in theological terms, that of a “pilgrim.” There seems to be more in this of what we know of St. Paul than of the little we know of St. Peter.
He used planes and helicopters, and although we know of no “shipwrecks” such as St. Paul had to deal with—in the more modern form of airplane engine failures—there were attempts to kill him in Mexico, Italy, the Philippines and Portugal, all of them failures except the one that seriously wounded him in 1981. His travels were followed via radio, television and later internet by many millions more than the multitudes waiting for him at each stopover, though nothing was ever said about the many more who didn’t feel attracted by these trips. Nor was there any way to measure their effectiveness in ensuring a continued interest in the Church among those who did go see him.
Joseph Ratzinger: The problem with this pastoral strategy is that John Paul II was spoken of from the beginning as someone with little interest in the daily governing of the Church, in providing detailed follow-up to the innumerable proposals made to a pope through the Roman Curia’s different ministries. In this regard—and this regard alone—his papacy was hardly one of an absolute monarchy.
John Paul II’s right hand
To deal with the problem, John Paul II entrusted the day-to-day administration of the Church to certain collaborators in whom he had full confidence and he did so more genuinely than any other previous pope had ever done. He quickly elected German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was a theologian and an expert on Vatican II, and had been named cardinal archbishop of München-Freising by Paul VI, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He kept Cardinal Casaroli on as secretary of state until his retirement in 1991 then elected as his successor Cardinal Angelo Sodano, nuncio in Chile during a good part of the Pinochet dictatorship, where he was during the pope’s visit to that country. After Cardinal Jerome Hamer, a Dominican, retired as head of the Congregation of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, he was replaced with a Spanish cardinal, diocesan priest Eduardo Martínez Somalo, who is close to Opus Dei.
Ratzinger, Sodano and Martínez Somalo were John Paul II’s right hands for many years. Ratzinger, a theologian of the Augustinian lineage, with a somewhat pessimistic outlook on the world, continued publishing theological opinions despite his Vatican post. The best known of these is Informe sobre la Fe, published in 1985, where one clearly captures that pessimism, his serious reserves about Vatican II and his sympathy for the new religious movements—Communion and Liberation, Foccolari, Catechumens—which he considered the new historic figure to succeed the old religious orders.
Under Ratzinger’s prefecture, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published two Instructions on the Theology of Liberation and Christian Liberty. The first attempted to stigmatize it as dependent on Marxism and irremediably contaminated by it.
Many acts carry Cardinal Ratzinger’s seal, although in Vatican theology the final responsibility—and at times signed approval—lies with the pope. These include the withdrawal of Hans Küng’s title as professor of Catholic theology; the year of silence imposed on Leonardo Boff; the suspension of the exercise of the priestly ministry imposed on German priest Eugen Drewermann and French Dominican Jacques Pohier; the serious reservations about Jesuit Jacques Dupuis’ work on the theology of religions and God’s saving presence in them, later confirmed by the Dominus Iesus Declaration; the excommunication of Sri Lanka’s Mariana theologian Tissa Balasuriya; and the almost unheard of prohibition of even “thinking” about the possibilities of women’s ministerial ordination based on an unsustainable biblical fundamentalism contained in the 1994 Ordinatio sacerdotalis Declaration.
Cardinal Martínez Somalo acted as a sort of watchdog of the religious orders. And Cardinal Sodano headed up the most extensive diplomatic expansion known in Catholic Church history with an unprecedented number of nuncia-tures and thus an enormous expansion of the pope’s role as head of state. It was difficult to avoid the sensation of contradiction between the pope’s humble act of kneeling to kiss the ground of the countries he visited, and the red carpet down which he walked immediately afterward to reach a dais from which he listened to the anthems of that nation and the Vatican.
He also had left handsJohn Paul II’s papacy was complex. In his way of governing the Church’s daily affairs, he also had left hands. One of the most important of his collaborators in the social field was Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a Frenchman who had been archbishop of Marseilles and later headed the Pontifical Secretariat of Justice and Peace. Over 80, he was already retired so no longer had a vote in the conclave, but even in 2003, John Paul II sent him to Iraq to urge Sadam Hussein to cooperate with the UN teams investigating the existence of weapons of mass destruction.
Then there was Cardinal Paul Poupard, also French, at the head of the Pontifical Council of Culture. Speaking of European unity according to Maastricht, Poupard said the following in 1994: “They only talk about money, while nothing is said about the millions of Europeans out of work. Where is the social Europe? Society is living through a drama for which a heartless technological recipe is being proposed. In this founding moment of Europe, we need to stop and reflect on the risk of building a Berlin wall that is much more solid than the one just brought down.”
For a long time, the now deceased Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, an Argentine who identified with the Medellín documents and with liberation theology, headed the Pontifical Council for the Laity. And that was after he had had to leave the prefecture of the then Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes because of his firm opposition to John Paul II’s decision to concede the status of Prelatura Nullius—personal diocese without territorial limits—to Opus Dei.
Cardinal Francis Arinze, from Nigeria, presided the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and gave himself heart and soul to the pluralist program initiated in 1986 with the papal gesture of prayer for peace in Assisi with representatives from diverse religions. The idea that the “construction of an economy of solidarity with planetary dimensions” is the “evangelical” program to which the Church should commit itself can be attributed to Arinze. After being president of the African Synod, Arinze is today the prefect of the Congregation of the Sacred Liturgy and it was under his authority that the latest restrictive norms of the liturgy in the Latin rite were published.
A state authority responsible for In the supreme, full and immediate exercise of his power over the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff makes use of the ministries of the Roman Curia, which consequently conduct their work in his name and under his authority for the good of the churches and service of the sacred pastors.” So states number 9 of the Christus Dominus Apostolic Constitution, which heads the Roman Curia web site, even though that definition has now been replaced by that of John Paul II’s own Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus.
judgments without human rights
In its typical pompous language, far from that of the New Testament, this legal text recognizes a common sense fact: the pope alone cannot concern himself with all the daily affairs incumbent upon a papacy that has evolved through the centuries toward a centralist authority only comparable, in Catholicism’s current worldwide size, to that of the People’s Republic of China. In such a system, the pope evidently needs counselors and advisers and it is unthinkable that he could govern without ministers, deputy ministers, secretaries and lesser officials. But John Paul II’s predilection for the pilgrim pastoral strategy meant that the Roman Curia’s role is now genuinely that of an expansive institutional and often state-like bureaucracy.
And this is a serious theological problem. To cite only a single case, the necessary bureaucracy of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith determines that a Church that through the mouth of Peter’s successor defends human rights and challenges states to respect them scrupulously may or may not respect them itself when calling its own theologians to judgment. Peter’s successor is distant in these processes, and rarely if ever do those under suspicion—Boff, Pohier, Dupuis, Balasuriya, Drewermann, Curran, Height—see the face of a pope that the media presents as being so close to the great multitudes. Nor do they know who has sown the doubt against them or accused them. And they must lead their own defense, without the help of defense lawyers. Furthermore, they have no idea whether an absolution will signify the end of the accusation or if the shadow of the stigma, the punishment or the condemnation will accompany them all the days of their lives.
An imperial-style bureaucracy It sometimes happens that the pope simply cannot exercise the authority on which this bureaucracy bases its action, as was the case at least in the last three months of John Paul II’s life and very probably all of his last year, despite statements to the contrary by the curia itself. To use an extreme example, Nicaragua’s Cardinal Miguel Obando publicly revealed with some distaste that the nunciature of Managua called him by telephone at 2:45 am on April 1, barely two hours before the announcement of the Pope’s death, to announce that he would no longer be serving in the archbishopric and that his successor had been named. Had that not happened, the appointment could have remained frozen once the pope died until the following pope either confirmed or reviewed the decision.
with modern methods
It is clear that the pope, who had been seriously ill for months, could not have made the appointment. And if what sounds like a fictional appointment happened in this case due to illness, it could also have happened in the naming of other bishops due to the pope’s travels, other illnesses or because he was attending to other tasks. Or simply because John Paul II delegated a number of those lower priority tasks to other individuals in his curial offices, in which the decisions necessarily appeared with his signature, perhaps digital, or under the vague title of “by mandate of the supreme authority.”
The underlying problem is that while the pope needs such a radically modern religious bureaucracy if he is to act as a pastor or teacher, it sometimes takes on airs of an imperial court with all the attending secrets and lack of fluid and transparent accountability—especially financial. The obscure events that ended in 1984 with the suicide (murder?) of Ambrosian Bank president Calvi, the bank’s collapse and the removal of Archbishop Marcinckus as head of the Vatican’s finances are painful confirmation of this.
A centralist authority with only male officialsOnly a Church government conceived as irremediably centralist has this problem. This would not happen with one organized into various Patriarchies—for example by major languages or by continents—as Cardinal Carlo María Martini, a Jesuit, has openly suggested. Nor would it happen were the pope to call a Council much more often than customarily happens—Martini has also called for a Vatican III. This is truer today than ever precisely because we live in a time in which radical changes are occurring with an impressive and accelerating velocity to which the Gospel must be adapted and acculturated.
Nor would such problems arise in a form of governing in which the pope continually consulted his brother bishops in an authentically synodic way, and they in turn met collegially in bishops’ conferences, as Catholic theology clearly does not sustain a concept of bishops as ministers of the pope but rather as successors of the apostles.
And finally, these problems would not occur with a Church government that consulted certain laypeople, priests and nuns, based not on their power or wealth or the masses they could mobilize, but on the testimonial of their following of Jesus Christ, which builds community. The Second Vatican Council made it clear that the attendance of the Holy Sprit and the refusal to let faith, hope and love languish applies to the Christian communities together with their leaders and not only to their leaders. John Paul II himself said clearly that to achieve the union of the Christian Churches the ministerio petrino—that is, the pope’s office—would have to be deeply reformed. This is perhaps not surprising, given that on more than one occasion Pope Juan Pablo II’s profound Christian intuitions ended up frustrated in the internal network of the Roman Curia, not least because that curia is the only bureaucratic staff in the world that is still exclusively masculine. Compare, for example, the great boldness of the prayer for peace in Assisi in 1986, when the pope shared his call to prayers equally with religious leaders from all over the world and almost all religions, to the Dominus Iesus Declaration, bearing Cardinal Ratzinger’s signature, which reaffirms the pre-Vatican II doctrine that “outside the Church there is no salvation.”
Guatemala 2002:I found myself close to Pope John Paul II for the fourth time—the closest I have ever been—as a priest concelebra-ting the Eucharist when the beatified Brother Pedro de San José de Betancourt was canonized in Guatemala. On that occasion, I witnessed not only his capacity to convoke masses, again calculated at 700,000, but also his capacity to suffer within the sight of multitudes. “Terrible!” the pope exclaimed as he began to slide out of his chair due to the effects of Parkinson’s disease and several sheets of his homily flew from his hands because he could not keep hold of them in the wind.
At the speed of the postmodern Church
John Paul was the first pope of postmodernity. He was elected ten years after the great crisis of modernity in 1968. The celebration of those enormous multitudes in the Southern Hippodrome in Guatemala in 2002 largely recalled—save obvious and profound differences—the Woodstock happening in the seventies: in a country dominated by violence, people wanted to experience the fraternity of sitting outside in the grass together and singing for a few hours.
In contrast, those multitudes were not as enthusiastic about the Guatemalan bishops’ ethical message taken from the good Samaritan parable to illustrate Brother Pedro’s life dedicated to Jesus Christ, “Go forth and do the same.” Upon leaving the celebration, they swept right by numerous beggars and disabled people asking for handouts. Nor, for example, did anybody suggest that leaders of big business should set up a scholarship fund for poor students in the country’s various universities in memory of the canonization of Brother Pedro and the pope’s visit.
I read in The New York Times that John Paul II left behind a generation of young Catholics who had relit the flame of the demanding moral Catholicism cast off or at least questioned by their parents’ generation regarding issues such as masturbation, premarital sex, birth control, abortion and the like. This new generation could provide many new priests, with young seminary students again proudly donning priestly robes and habits and living the clerical segregation that their forebears’ generation rejected. That may well be, but it doesn’t answer the question I carry in my heart. How much does that distancing from the poor, that virtual ignoring of them, have to do with this return of clericalism’s power? People today seem to need to shrug off their vital doubts as God’s will, to anticipate the certainty of glory without having to endure the birth pains of their own new humanity, even though doing so is St. Paul’s definition of living a Christian life in hope. Vital certainties are not of this world, but of the eternal dwelling place.
The impotence of the dying pope No one can deny that this pope has attracted enormous multitudes both in life and in death. But will that prove to be the fundamental sign of the Church’s and above all the Gospel’s credibility? John Paul II lived in a media world and lived through the media. Even his illness, his death throes and his death itself were media events.
The fifth time I felt intensely close to John Paul II was Easter Sunday, less than a week before his death. That was when I witnessed through internet how they set up a microphone so he could try to offer a message from the window of his apartment. His failed attempt was heart-rending, but what impressed me more than anything was the way he lifted his hand to his forehead and the way that his mouth expressed impotence and frustration. I am a Jesuit and confess my special respect for any pope, including the one who has just died, but my personal feelings and impressions are not subject to any parameter of correction because they’re spontaneous and uncontainable and awaken connections in my memory. At that moment, the expression of his mouth seemed to me to resemble the one I saw in Managua when, unquestionably frustrated by the cries of the crowd, he ordered silence.
I had been praying that his death would be as painless as possible, that he would live his trust in God, the “friend of life,” while he remained conscious facing death, that tremendous mystery of enmity with humanity, according to St. Paul, and could thus experience St. Paul’s profound desire to die and be with Christ. But what triumphed in John Paul II was St. Paul’s other desire, from the same occasion: “For you it is more necessary that I continue living.” It seemed to me that from his window his body transmitted the helpless feeling that he could no longer fulfill that desire.
For a pope who lived moments of power and glory in seeing his immense influence over the fall of the Berlin wall, the liberation of his homeland and the dissolution and fall of the USSR, his brutal decline before the eyes of the world was spectacular and probably extremely painful. But I imagine that it was even more painful in 1990 and again in 2003 to realize his powerlessness to stop two US Presidents, father and son, in their race to war in the Gulf and in Iraq, or to stop Ariel Sharon in his barbaric scorched earth policy in Palestine, or to halt the genocidal war in Rwanda. And I can imagine his impotence upon witnessing the uncontain-able expansion of “savage” or “primitive” capital, as he himself put it in his encyclical Centesimus annus.
The multitudes and the spectacle:John Paul II’s funeral was an enormous manifestation of veneration and piety. It is possible that over three million people filed past his catafalque, half of them his compatriots from Poland. John Paul II unquestionably touched the heart of many people, particularly young people, who given the extraordinary duration of his papacy never knew any other successor to St. Peter. But numbers are not the most important indicator that following Jesus Christ is rooted in people’s hearts.
Are they signs of Church credibility?
The presence of multitudes is not an unequivocal sign; it is ambiguous. Proof of this is shown by the two million people who attended the funeral of a just man like Gandhi; the million each at the funeral of such beloved women as Diana of Wales or Mother Teresa; the million at that of Yitzakh Rabin, a man who fought for peace; the million at that of China’s revolutionary transformer Mao Zedong; the ten million at the burial of Ayatollah Jomeini; and, to cap my point, the five million at that of a bloody tyrant like Joseph Stalin.
In his intense and long pilgrimages around the world, John Paul II attracted huge numbers, but we don’t know how many kept on loving their neighbor in everyday life. Postmodernity, including religious postmodernity, loves spectacle and celebration, especially the splendor of ceremonies, singing and even dance, as proven by the tens of thousands who attend the Brazilian dancing Mass organized by Father Rossi, listed as one of the 21st century’s hundred emerging leaders by Time Magazine in 1999. It is evident that while the Catholic liturgy of the old Latin rite needs a strong injection of imagination and that dance should in no way be excluded from a creative liturgy, a more profound and long-term vision is needed.
The sign of saintliness must be maintained in the world against that mundane lifestyle consisting of voluntary stints of one of two years, religious festivals and rites of passage that come nowhere near an ongoing commitment to the truly charismatic religion sociologist Max Weber observed in pages of the Gospel such as the Beatitudes. Weber remarked that their content is so human that they rise from their own ashes again and again in history. The word religion appears very few times in the New Testament, but when it does, it is linked to caring for one’s poor and excluded fellow human beings.
The power and the glory: As long as the Church maintains its historically acquired, historically comprehensible, pardonable but not justifiable nature of a secular state, the kind of power that seeks homage on bent knee will always be a temptation. It will hardly “wash the feet” of the people, following Jesus’ example. Harder still will it be to shun the temptation of “seeking the glory of this world” that Vatican II warns against. And more difficult yet to convert itself, as its teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, did, into the “Church of the poor,” the concept proposed by John XXIII and Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro in the Second Vatican Council, but which only the Church in Latin America dared to insert into the Medellín and Puebla documents, applying the Council to this continental Church.
The Church’s great temptation
The powerful of the world circled John Paul II’s coffin. With St. Peter’s new successor, will the Vatican go back to being what it was before, the martyr’s wall where Peter was crucified and buried face down, unable to “go where he wanted”? If the Church, like Jesus, is not persecuted, it will end up being “greater than its teacher.”
A sudden saint? In her extraordinary book, Friends of God and Prophets, a feminist theological interpretation of the communion of saints, US theologian Elizabeth Johnson wrote that memory of the saints and the characteristics of the cult that pays them tribute should be reconstructed and analyzed because they can be used just as effectively by civil or ecclesiastical powers seeking to affirm their own position as by those working to resist or oppose government structures they consider oppressive.
This can also happen to the insistent demand by some camps of both the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the laity to fast track the canonization of Pope John Paul II. In the days proceeding the conclave and in the very process of electing the new pope, this could have become a pressure in favor of choosing someone already committed to the same line as his predecessor. Something similar happened when John XXIII died but the pope who followed him, Paul VI, didn’t go along with it.
This has turned out to be one of the few predictable conclaves. The cardinals named by Leo XIII, a liberal and social pope, chose a traditionalist conservative, Pious X, who was canonized despite permitting the establishment in the Roman Curia of a system of espionage against dissident theologians. The cardinals named by Pious XII elected Juan XXIII. And the cardinals named by Paul VI, who made an effort to develop the Second Vatican Council in both letter and spirit, elected John Paul II, who, while always invoking the Council, often developed it according to the letter and the spirit that the conservative minority managed to insert into the council texts. This is why John Paul II has rightly been called the promoter of ecclesiastical restoration.
Pope John Paul II’s Testament: In his testament, Pope John Paul II expresses his profound gratitude for the “great gift” to the Church represented by the Second Vatican Council, in which he participated. In that document, the pope implicitly confers Vatican II’s heritage on both his successor and the Church as a whole in the following terms: “Being on the threshold of the third millennium in medio Ecclesiae I wish to express my gratitude once again to the Holy Spirit for the great gift of Vatican Council II, to which I owe so much, along with the entire Church and all the episcopacy. I am convinced that for a long time to come the new generations will draw upon the riches provided by this 20th-century Council. As a bishop who participated in the conciliar event from the first to the last day, I wish to entrust this great heritage to all those who are and will be called upon to put it into practice in the future. For my part, I give thanks to the eternal Pastor, who has allowed me to serve this wonderful cause throughout the years of my pontificate.”
The cause of Vatican II
Putting the Second Vatican Council into practice is the great task facing St. Peter’s new successor, his brother bishops and the Church as a whole. The Second Vatican Council was unquestionably ambiguous to some degree, since its documents compressed the pastoral orientation of both the majority and the minority of Council priests. It obviously gave preference to the majority, but granted many concessions to the minority, sometimes even by Pope Paul VI’s explicit mandate, as in the famous “Explicative Note” to chapter III, which diluted the collegial vision of authority held by the majority of Council priests.
The Jesuit José María Castillo has discussed this ambiguity in his brief but incisive book, La Iglesia que quiso el Concilio. I personally believe that John Paul II “served” the Council’s cause with the same ambiguity revealed in the council texts. On some occasions and in some decisions he interpreted Vatican II in the majority sense, while choosing the minority sense in others.
Ratzinger: The chosen oneWhen, ten days after having written about the papacy of John Paul II, I realized that there was white smoke and the bells of the great basilica sounded, I was almost certain that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been chosen. No other candidate could have been elected so quickly. Even so, I still harbored the hope of a different outcome. It seemed to me too much for the cardinals to have elected the greatest symbol of doctrinal intransigence of John Paul II’s papacy. But my intuition was confirmed: it was indeed Ratzinger.
At first, I was despondent. His 24-years at the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith had so saddened me. But then, trying to put a positive spin on the news, I recalled how some leaks suggested that Cardinal Martini had very firmly argued for a change in the Church during the pre-conclave meeting and that no few cardinals had identified with his viewpoint. According to another leak, Martini himself had received numerous votes in the first round of the conclave, more even than Ratzinger, but he had reminded his brother cardinals that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and begged them not to continue voting for him.
Whatever else he is, Joseph Ratzinger is very intelligent and a very capable theologian. St. Teresa of Jesus always preferred an intelligent person as her spiritual guide rather than a very good, even sainted one who was not very intelligent. If in the run-up to the conclave Ratzinger confirmed that there was a strong group in favor of a change in the Church, he will not want to impose himself as pope for fear of dividing the Church. Martini said it best: “I am sure that Benedict XVI has a few surprises in store for us because, as I experienced when I changed from teaching to pastoral responsibilities, a pastor is constantly reeducated by his people.”
Benedict XVI: Between hope and concernEverything Benedict XVI said from the day of his election to the day he took office as bishop of Rome and successor to St. Peter seems to be in line with this. There was his insistence on the union of Christians in dialogue with other religions and favoring the “cause of the Second Vatican Council”; his self-description as “a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord; his indication to the cardinals that his mission as pope is not “about honors but about service”; his decision not to announce a “government program,” as “my real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord”; and above all his critique of religious power and all enclosed power in his interpretation of the two symbols with which he took office: the pallium of the bishop of Rome and the fisherman’s ring.
He also recalled those deserts of poverty, hunger and thirst alongside the desert “of the obscurity of God, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of man’s dignity and path.” When he finished by saying that the “external deserts are multiplying in the world because the internal deserts have become so vast,” I thought, as a Jesuit, of “the justice that springs forth from faith.” Or the human good will that the new pope welcomed in the same homily when he warmly mentioned non-believers.
In contrast, the confirmation of all the dignitaries of the Roman Curia in their posts doesn’t encourage optimism. And if his choice of the name Benedict was, as he has said, for St. Benedict of Nursia, builder of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, it suggests a clear and to me worrying hierarchy of concerns that will prioritize counteracting European secularism and indifference over banishing hunger and miserable poverty from the rest of the world.
Combating capitalism with The least we should hope for today, if Peter’s successor and the whole Church are to follow Jesus Christ and bring the Samaritan of the parable up to date, would be for the Church to combat savage capitalism—the adjective is almost permanently redundant—with at least the same ardor and vigor that it used to combat real socialism because it was atheist. And it should combat it with a call to global and local solidarity, the identity of shared concerns, rather than condemnations made less credible by the condemnation of other groups by today’s Church: homosexuals, feminists, women who aspire to the priesthood, diocesan priests who would like to marry and those who fight AIDS with condoms, dominate nature by birth control, turn to abortion to save a life, or seek death to avoid a slow and painful terminal illness…
The priority: Expel power from the Church If I had to choose a priority task for Benedict XVI, I would chose the one expressed in 1991 by the dying auxiliary bishop of Rome and theologian of religions Pietro Rossano, according to the famous journalist Giancarlo Zizola in El Sucesor. Responsible for John Paul II’s main speeches in Assisi, Rossano proposed expelling from the Church the power it had occupied: “The Church must be loved even more today because it is more deeply in serious sin. The Church is in sin because it occupies power and is occupied by power…. I believe it a duty of each Christian to fight to expel this sin from the Church.”
Bishop Rossano, who died of cancer two weeks later, was in the Roman Curia’s then-Secretariat for Non-Christians in the sixties. According to Zizola, he was among those who linked consciousness of this sin to the impossibility of some ecclesiastics changing their focus from Church to humanity.
As Bishop Rossano explained on his deathbed: “The leaders of the Curia, who are dizzy with success, media seduction and worldly talk, prefer to involve themselves in immediate things today. They do not seem too bothered about culture problems and are not prepared to take an interest in this perspective. This makes it hard for them to understand that the Church will be unable to surmount the current crisis unless it can accept the challenge of pluralist and differentiated cultures, including the idea of the plurality of paths to salvation. If they are consequently unable to abandon the Church’s ideology as the perfect society and the secular principle of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus [there is no salvation outside of the Church], materially interpreted to the letter, the only thing left to us Christians is love and the testimony of charity. It is our last responsibility. But the Church leaders are excessively concerned with the rest, which reminds me of this warning of Shakespeare: ‘If the Church wastes its time again, time will reject it.’”
A Church in the diaspora We should not be afraid of being left alone or in a reduced group, but rather of the danger of ending up bereft of love. I will finish with two interdependent thoughts by Karl Rahner in the time he called the “winter” of the Church, which has not yet ended despite the multitudes we have seen saying goodbye to one pope or welcoming another. The first is: “The Church of the future will be a diaspora community,” in other words, migrant and strange amid the vast mundanity of postmodern globalization. And the second is: “Tomorrow’s devout person will either be a mystic—someone who has ‘experienced’ something—or else they will no longer be devout at all,” in other words, he or she will open up to the mystery of God in humanity or will remain irremediably irrelevant in the midst of this world that God so loves.
with mystical Christians
Juan Hernández Pico, SJ, is envío correspondent in Guatemala.