I suppose that there are few people I have admired more in my lifetime than our current Holy Father. My admiration began when Victor Messori published his Ratzinger Report way back in the 1980s, at a time when the liberals were still very much in the ascendent, and to question the prevailing orthodoxy was like offering a rabbi a bacon sandwich. Pope John Paul was very much in charge, but I have never really thought of him as being really on the same side as me; I commented once in an article in the Catholic Herald that his pontificate was to me rather like a taxi ride in Rome: you get there, probably in one piece, but holding clumps of hair in your white and trembling knuckles. The trouble with JPII was that you never knew what he was going to do next.
For me, this was summed up in a single comment of his; when somebody suggested that he might think of abdicating due to his declining health, he growled "I don't need two functioning legs to govern the Church!" And that was precisely the problem; he saw his job as to govern the Church, to rule it. If I were to presume to interpret Pope Benedict's mind, I think he would see his job, conversely, as being governed by the Church. Not in the narrow sense of obeying the majority, or at least loudest, view (there are so many who would like to see that!), but of obeying the majority throughout history; listening not just to Catholics alive now, but also to those who have been alive in the past, whose Church it is too—a much deeper democracy that Chesterton called, I believe the 'democracy of the dead', to preserve it for the future.
The narrow view of the Church that is currently expressed by the Church of England, which is to say governing (and even determining doctrine) by the majority view of those presently alive is very different to both Pope Benedict's view and Pope John Paul's, even more than they appear to differ from each other. The Church is God's gift to all humanity, and not even a Pope should tinker with it just because he wants to, or thinks it a good idea. This is where we need to be very careful what we mean when we consult the faithful in matters of doctrine.
I see that the US Bishops' Conference has successfully petitioned Rome for permission to celebrate the feast of Blessed John Paul. That doesn't surprise me; his method of governance naturally appeals to Americans who seem to admire strong and charismatic leadership—the President, after all, is effectively a time-limited elected monarch. Two dear American friends of mine were talking about this in my garden a few years ago: they both agreed that they couldn't really take to Pope Benedict: he just didn't seem to be a mover and a shaker. One said with deep approval 'not like Pope John Paul; he really kicked a**'!
Given the immense difference of governance style between Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul—and the latter's propensity apparently to adopt or dispense with tradition as it suited him—it remains a matter of surprise to me that our present Holy Father had such an admiration for his predecessor, even to the point of fast-tracking his beatification (something I regard as deeply unwise—imagine if Maciel had predeceased John Paul: might he now be a beatus that we would have to find a way to justify?). In the past, before Ratzinger came into his superb own as Pope (probably as much to his own surprise as anyone else's) I used to almost think of him as like a geeky schoolboy hero-worshipping the athlete as he did his homework for him.
Early in his reign, I remember Pope Benedict presiding at a great Vigil in St Peter's Square to close the Year of the Priest; he talked off the cuff about sanctity, and observed that we must remember that saints have faults too, even sins, against which they battle. That was such a refreshing thing to hear, though I gather that it was airbrushed out in the Osservatore Romano the following day. There can have been few who knew Wojtyla better than Ratzinger, and it was very apparent from the superb homily that the latter gave the former at his Requiem that Ratzinger believed in his former boss's sanctity without question. He cannot have approved his seat-of-the-pants style of government, but he recognized the true nature of someone very close to God, with perhaps at times truly divine inspiration.
This was all brought on by something I read in The Tablet this morning, and which I would like to share with you. I hope The Tablet won't mind, as it has a new edition appearing tomorrow.
"You will be the first of many East Germans to go to the West and many West Germans will go to the East," Pope John Paul II told Cardinal Joachim Meisner, then Bishop of Berlin, in September 1987, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The bishop had been asked by the Pope to visit him at Castel Gandolfo, and there, according to the bishop, "we sat on a garden bench and talked for a long while. That was when he told me that I had to go to Cologne [as Archbishop]. 'That is impossible' I replied. 'I am the president of the Berlin bishops' conference and keep telling the faithful that our task is to remain here'. That was when he told me that I'd be the first of many to go west and many West Germans would soon go east. Whereupon I said to him, 'Holy Father, you didn't say that ex cathedra, but ex garden bench.' And the Pope answered, 'It isn't ex cathedra, but the Pope is nevertheless right.' 'Holy Father, did you get this tip from the secret services?' I asked. 'My secret service is up above' he answered.
The next day, Meisner discussed his conversation with Cardinal Ratzinger. "What explanation have you got for this?" Meisner asked Ratzinger. And Ratzinger replied "The Pope has his own faith secrets. I can't see behind them either." And, as Meisner pointed out, John Paul II was right.
The Tablet, Notebook, 20 October 2012
No, I don't want Pope John Paul canonized any time soon. And in fact, I think that we have already beatified or canonized too many recent popes, to the point that one wonders what was wrong with the others. But, perhaps, Pope Benedict's devotion to his predecessor might suggest that here, truly, was sanctity. But not as we know it, Jim.