01-04-2006 - Traces, n.4

Karol & Joseph

Filled with Passion for Man Because Filled with Passion for Christ
John Paul II’s long pontificate and Benedict XVI’s new beginning. Both filled with passion for Christ, center of the cosmos and of history

by Massimo Camisasca

The passage from one pope to another is always a crucial moment in the Church’s history. For a short time, the flow of the previous pontificate goes ahead and you don’t know how it will continue. My mind goes back to the moments just after John Paul I’s death. Quite apart from the drama of his passing, after such a short pontificate, I was asking myself who could carry on. For, few as they were, those days had marked a huge change.
The long years of Paul VI’s pontificate had just ended. He was a great defender of the faith in terrible and dramatic times, concluding with the funeral of Aldo Moro (assassinated by the left-wing “Red Brigades”), celebrated by an empty casket, without the remains of the statesman who had been President of the FUCI (Federation of Catholic University Members) under him.
John Paul I’s month as Pope was marked by the rejection of the royal “We,” the disappearance of the Gestatorial Chair, the freshness and joy of his dialogues, and his smiles. All this led one to think of an epoch-making break, most of all thanks to his being so attached to the substance of Christianity and so free from all formalism, and thanks to his affirmation, “The true drama of a Church that wants to define itself as modern is the attempt to correct the astonishment at the event of Christ with rules.”

A very long pontificate

Then we received the gift of John Paul II. His was a long pontificate, a very long one, one of the longest in history; a pontificate that we shall not cease to fathom and study for the next few decades.
Externally, he was someone who broke all records, first of all in the number of his journeys, made to almost all the countries of the world, even to those whose doors seemed closed because of right–or left-wing dictatorships (just think of his meetings with Pinochet and Fidel Castro); then the number of his speeches, the number of audiences, and the number of people he met, and his presence in the mass media. All this made John Paul II probably the person most seen on all the world’s televisions.
There is no comparison with other pontificates. The number of encyclicals, letters, messages, and post-synodal documents, as his biographers have recorded, occupy almost as many pages as the documents of all the popes before him. Yet John Paul II’s true greatness lies in none of this. There is a secret kernel that lies at the origin of all his passion, of his running around and speaking, a secret kernel that was revealed during the years of his illness, years that remain a basic key for understanding the rest of his life. This secret kernel is his love for the Church. From the first pages of Redemptor Hominis, it appears clear that John Paul II felt the burden of guiding the Church beyond the year 2000; it is like a great metaphor, indicating the need to lead the Church to meet men. This secret kernel pushed him to the most clamorous acts of his pontificate: his approval of and his alliance with the ecclesial movements, the request for forgiveness for the mistakes and faults of Christians in past centuries, and prayer meetings with exponents of other world religions. For John Paul II, these initiatives were all an expression of one great trajectory, which, starting off from the human person and his encounter with Him whom he defined as the center of the cosmos and of history, he wanted to point out the Church’s place as the heart of the world.

Pope Wojtyla’s battles
The long, over twenty-year collaboration between Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and John Paul II was a remote preparation for the succession.
The most crucial documents Ratzinger published during those years were in support of the Pope’s “battles.” I am thinking of the documents clarifying liberation theology, the uniqueness of Jesus as Savior, and the defense of celibacy and of life at its beginnings. But it is first of all in the long work of preparation of the new catechism, requested by the Synod of Bishops, that one can spot what begins to appear as the theme of continuity between the two pontificates.
Pope Ratzinger–Benedict XVI–found himself (certainly against his will and probably against his expectations) having to take up a heritage that would have made anyone tremble. This obliges the successor of Peter, every instant of his day, to go back to the root of his mission and to avoid any superficial comparison with his predecessors. For a Pope, the only comparison is always and only that with Him who tells him, “You are Peter.”
Benedict XVI, understandably, chose at once a new image that, while showing his inevitable diversity from John Paul II, opens the way for understanding his continuity. He didn’t want to commit himself to such a dense series of journeys, but at the same time he did not want to interrupt the tradition inaugurated by Paul VI. Thus, we have the great occasions that have seen him in Bari for the Italian National Eucharistic Congress, in Cologne for World Youth Day, and we will see him in Poland and in other countries. Like Paul VI, he has chosen to link his journeys to emblematic events for the Church’s life. Benedict XVI has reduced the number of audiences, too. For sure, there is no shortage of addresses, and we can say that each one is always an event.

A man of thought
The specific character of his thought can be spotted in his texts. Benedict XVI brings to the leadership of the Church, as he did to the leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, his experience as a teacher and as a great man of thought. He feels the need to read, to keep himself informed, to reflect, and this adds a particular weight to all his interventions. He is able to combine simplicity with depth in an absolutely singular way. In every text of his can be glimpsed the great desire to express the core of Christianity, that essential and inalienable center in which the Mystery addresses man. This was the case with his first encyclical, just as in his magisterium in Cologne, and we expect the same in all the interventions to come, like that, for example, to be pronounced at the beginning of June to the ecclesial movements and communities that will go to Rome to meet him. He has within him the desire to reveal to man the liberating center of the faith, that promise that makes Christianity not a burden, a chain, just a look into the future, but an experience already possible in this time: the merciful embrace of Christ, His salvation for the whole man.

The same Lordship
“At first God’s will can seem to be almost an unbearable weight, a burden impossible to bear; but in reality God’s will gives us wings to fly upwards,” Benedict XVI said in one of his first addresses.
Just as John Paul II’s pontificate was striking for its length, that of Benedict XVI is striking for its concentration, like a process of systolic and diastolic pulses that the Church is living in this millennial passage, showing its continuity through different expressions of the one Lordship. This is certainly one of the surprising and, for a believer, miraculous aspects of the life of the Body of Christ in history.