It is fashionable among Vatican insiders to
say, “The next pope is not yet a cardinal.” For one thing, it relieves
the speaker of the burden of identifying a candidate among the present
crop. (According to some reports, John Paul himself recently joked that
his successor did not yet have a red hat).
|A perceptive colleague recently
observed that when I write about cardinals in this column, I almost always
tip them as papabili — that is, candidates to be pope. Aren’t there
any cardinals, my colleague wondered, that I don’t see as papal
Recent events offer me
the chance to discuss three such men this week: Joseph Ratzinger, prefect
of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Carlo Maria Martini,
archbishop of Milan; and Giacomo Biffi , archbishop of Bologna. All are
strong leaders with solid intellectual credentials and a high media profile,
and each could fill the “shoes of the fisherman.” Yet I suspect none is
likely to be elected, though Ratzinger and Martini may draw a smattering
of votes on early ballots.
Why? Because all three
are divisive figures. Each would make a strong pope, leaving a clear personal
imprint on the church. They could not help but be so; it is, like the story
of the scorpion and the frog, in their nature. The result would be further
polarization, further division, further acrimony. I believe that after
the long Wojtyla papacy, itself quite divisive, many cardinals want a period
of calm. This doesn’t mean a weak pope, but a more unifying and pastoral
figure who would let the church “breathe.”
(Note to readers: save
this column. You may want to remind me of it if one of these guys is elected!)
* * *
I saw Ratzinger recently
at the presentation of a new book by author Giuseppe Romano, entitled
Opus Dei: Il Messaggio, le Opere, le Persone (Opus Dei: The Message,
The Works, The People, San Paolo, 2002). Ratzinger is a fan of the
founder of Opus Dei, Spanish priest Josemaría Escrivá de
Balaguer, set to be canonized Oct. 6. The book launch took place at the
Augustinianum, just down the Via Paolo VI from the Holy Office, where Ratzinger
Ratzinger, who turns
75 on April 16, is weaker than when he took up his post 20 years ago. He
has spoken wistfully about retiring to his home in Regensburg in Bavaria.
In recent months he has turned over major chunks of responsibility to his
lieutenant, Italian Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone. Yet he was in good form
at the Opus Dei event, speaking without a prepared text in polished Italian.
The cardinal devoted
the gist of his talk to his admiration for the implied significance of
the phrase “Opus Dei,” which means “Work of God.” Escrivá, Ratzinger
suggested, realized that he was not doing his own work, but God’s. His
task was to be an instrument.
this attitude with what he called a “temptation of our time, also among
Christians,” to believe that after the “Big Bang” God withdrew from the
world and left things to function on their own. But God is not withdrawn,
Ratzinger insisted. We simply have to learn to put ourselves at God’s disposition,
and that is the “message of very great importance” which Ratzinger attributed
Ratzinger also praised
Escrivá for his “absolute fidelity to the great tradition of the
church,” while at the same time being open to the “great challenges of
the world” in universities and various professional environments.
Ratzinger closed with
an uncharacteristic personal touch. He confessed, as friends and students
already knew, that he is a cat lover. Noting that the book on Opus Dei
has a small chapter entitled the “invisible cat,” he joked that he was
especially pleased with that section. (The reference, by the way, is to
a phrase of C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves about the danger of assuming
the existence of something despite the absence of proof, like an invisible
cat on the sofa. The author, Romano, uses Lewis’ concept to refute the
idea that Opus has a political agenda).
Afterwards I said a quick
hello to Ratzinger, who has always been gracious despite my somewhat critical
Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith
(Continuum). I watched him walk back to the Holy Office in the company
of his ever-present personal secretary, Msgr. Josef Clemens. I found myself
thinking, once again, that few church leaders have helped shape their times
the way Ratzinger has.
* * *
I saw Martini on March
13, the night before Ratzinger’s talk, at a Rome conference that brought
together Muslims, Jews and Christians. It was part of a series sponsored
by Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, on what the three
monotheistic religions want “the other” to teach about them, and this particular
evening was devoted to prayer and liturgy.
Martini, known for the
soaring eloquence of his Italian, spoke instead in English, and offered
some basic principles of how Catholic prayer and liturgy should be presented
He began by identifying
three key sources:
The Sacred Constitution
on the Liturgy from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which he
called “still the best summary available on Christian liturgy.”
The Catechism of the
Catholic Church, especially the sections on the Eucharist (1135-1209,
1345-1419) and the section on Christian prayer (2558-2865), which he said
represent “the best pages written in recent times on prayer.”
The 1989 instruction
of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter on Some Aspects
of Christian Meditation. Martini said this document is a “true and
simple explanation of what is beautifully contained in Christian prayer.”
Of the three, the third
is the surprise. It made news in 1989 for its strong admonition against
prayer techniques from either the New Age or Eastern traditions (it thus
forms one milestone on the road towards Dominus Iesus). Upon re-reading
the document, however, I suspect that part of what Martini values is its
clear emphasis that Christian prayer can never be a collapse into the self,
or a flight from social responsibility.
prayer,” the document says, “always leads to love of neighbor, to action
and to the acceptance of trials, and precisely because of this it draws
one close to God.”
Martini then turned to
some “misunderstandings” to avoid. Chief among them, he insisted, is the
desire to reduce the “profound mystery” of the Eucharist to tidy doctrinal
“I am not sure I understand
exactly and profoundly what is going on,” he said. “I would not desire
that the Eucharist should be the first thing one uses to show what Christian
liturgy is. It is something so mysterious that it can be grasped only from
within the Christian life.”
Martini pointed out that
“not every prayer to God is a Christian prayer,” that for prayer to be
Christian it must be made through Christ and reflect in some sense the
teaching of the church.
The test of an authentic
Christian prayer, Martini argued, is offered in the words of Jesus: “Thy
will be done.”
“Every prayer must be
measured against this rule,” he said. “Is it bringing me to identify with
In closing, Martini called
inter-religious dialogue “more important than ever” after Sept. 11, to
demonstrate that religion “is opposed to every kind of violence.”
As Martini spoke, a trembling
in his right hand was noticeable, and sometimes he slipped his hand under
the table to disguise it. These tremors recently made news around the world
when Martini confirmed that he suffers from what he called a “Parkinsonism,”
meaning a symptom associated with Parkinson’s disease. Many people concluded
that Martini is gravely ill, which is not true. In fact, he enjoys the
health of a “normal 75-year-old,” as Martini put it, and his performance
last week confirms that he remains as sharp as ever.
* * *
Finally we come to Cardinal
Giacomo Biffi of Bologna, a media favorite for his willingness to take
strong positions and not mince words. He has suggested, for example, that
would-be immigrants from Catholic countries such as the Philippines ought
to have an advantage over people from Muslim nations such as Albania, as
part of a strategy to defend the “Christian identity” of Italy. He also
once asked Catholic churches not to play music by Mozart, given suspicions
the composer was also a Freemason.
Biffi is a curious fit
in Bologna, which has long been seen as “Red Bologna,” the city that historically
generated the highest percentage of votes for Italy’s Communist Party.
It’s one of the few cities in the Western world where you can run into
intersections such as “Leningrad Avenue” and “Workers’ Road.”
Yet Biffi has never shrunk
from the challenge of his environs, and although he is seen as somewhat
isolated even in a relatively conservative Italian bishops’ conference,
he still cuts a striking figure on the public stage.
Sat2000, a Catholic television
network in Italy, has recently been re-running some theological meditations
by Biffi during a late-night time slot, and I have been making an effort
to catch them. Several have been devoted to how Catholics ought to understand
the figure of Jesus Christ.
My favorite aired last
night, in which Biffi made bold to answer four questions:
Bottom line: Jesus, according
to Biffi, was a well-dressed, handsome man of the middle class in antique
homeowner who was equally comfortable with the simple and
How did Jesus dress?
With whom did Jesus spend time?
Where did Jesus eat and sleep?
Was Jesus good-looking or ugly?
“Jesus was not St. Francis,”
Biffi stressed, in contrast with those who see Jesus as an itinerant pacifist
like the legendary 13th century saint from Assisi. “Francis
had the aspect of a penitent. He was a different human type,” Biffi said.
Biffi argued that these
conclusions come from an unvarnished reading of the gospels. I know scripture
scholars who would draw different conclusions, but I think Biffi’s reconstruction
is interesting whether it stands up on exegetical grounds or not. Albert
The Quest for the Historical Jesus, famously observed
that people who set out to find the “real Jesus” are like seekers gazing
in a well, who “look to the bottom, and see their own image.” Hence what
Biffi’s analysis tells us about Jesus is one thing; what it tells us about
himself is another.
* * *
Finally, a tip. It is
fashionable among Vatican insiders to say, “The next pope is not yet a
cardinal.” For one thing, it relieves the speaker of the burden of identifying
a candidate among the present crop. (According to some reports, John Paul
himself recently joked that his successor did not yet have a red hat).
Among Italians the traditional
quip has fresh currency today, since two of the highest-profile sees in
the country are changing hands. Angelo Scola has recently been named the
new patriarch of Venice. We don’t yet know who will succeed Martini in
One name drawing attention
for Milan is Renato Corti, the current bishop of Novara. He was Martini’s
vicar general, and is considered a moderate in the same general theological
camp. Some well-informed Italian observers believe he could emerge as a
If Corti does go to Milan,
remember you heard it here first.
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