National Catholic Reporter ®

March 22, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 30

Send This Page to a Friend   | Printer Friendly Version
And now, three cardinals who won’t be pope

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 material?

     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 works.

     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.

     Ratzinger contrasted 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 to Escrivá.

     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 2000 biography, 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 to non-Catholics. 

     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.

     “Contemplative Christian 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 formulae.

     “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 God’s will?”

     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:

  • How did Jesus dress?
  • With whom did Jesus spend time?
  • Where did Jesus eat and sleep?
  • Was Jesus good-looking or ugly?
     Bottom line: Jesus, according to Biffi, was a well-dressed, handsome man of the middle class in antique Palestine, a homeowner who was equally comfortable with the simple and the mighty. 

     “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 Schweizter, in 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 Milan.

     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 formidable papabile.

     If Corti does go to Milan, remember you heard it here first.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

© 2002 
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111

TEL:  1-816-531-0538
FAX:  1-816-968-2280