The Year of two Popes
How Joseph Ratzinger stepped into the shoes of John Paul II—and what it means for the Catholic Church
by Paul Elie
This is the story of how Joseph Ratzinger took hold of the papacy, and of what his accession means for the Church today. It is the story of a man "inwardly seized by Christianity" (as he once wrote), seen preparing to seize the moment, putting human ambition in the service of suprahuman demands. It is a story of power and its exercise, though not in the usual pejorative sense. Ratzinger's stern stewardship of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had led the press to dub him "Ratzweiler"—and to luridly point out that the CDF was the successor to the Inquisition. But Ratzinger was at once more and less than an inquisitor. On the one hand, he was a crack theologian reduced to vetting Vatican documents; on the other, he was an intellectual with portfolio, speaking truth from power rather than to it.
Read the complete article from The Atlantic Online. Subscription is required. If you have one, also check out the accompanying interview with Paul Elie.
A few excerpts:
My friend John remembers clearly the first time he thought that Ratzinger would become pope. It was during a grand mass on October 16, 2003, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Paul's election. The mass was held in St. Peter's Square at twilight, so as to recall the evening in 1978 when Karol Wojtyla stepped out onto the central loggia of the basilica and introduced himself to the world as the new pope "from a far country." But the effect was to suggest the twilight of his pontificate. After several hundred cardinals and archbishops strode in procession to an altar outside St. Peter's, John Paul was rolled out on a special conveyance, a cross between a throne and a wheelchair that was now his principal means of getting around in public. Then Ratzinger gave a stirring encomium to his great co-worker. He likened John Paul to Paul the apostle, who also had "tirelessly traveled the world" and had suffered bodily at the end of his life. It was then, as the standing Ratzinger addressed John Paul, who was slumped in his chair, that John felt Ratzinger would be the one. "I can't give you a reason why I thought this. I just remember sitting there, watching and listening to him, and suddenly it hit me: He could be pope. He may be pope."
This was most obvious in the ad limina visits, in which the world's nearly 5,000 bishops come at five-year intervals for face-to-face meetings with the pope, followed by meetings at the CDF and other Vatican departments. The tempo of everyday life in Rome is set by these visits. But poor health had made it hard for John Paul to receive the bishops—several dozen in some weeks—and had reduced those receptions he did have to pro forma affairs, often consisting of little more than a handshake and a blessing.
A curial official who has been in Rome since Vatican II became greatly agitated as he told me the story of one archbishop's visit, specially scheduled because of an urgent problem in his diocese. "The archbishop traveled to Rome, coming from a very long distance, and went to the papal apartments. Less than an hour after the appointed time I received a call saying he was at the portinería downstairs. I was afraid that something had gone wrong—that I had not prepared him properly. I went down and found the archbishop very upset, nearly apoplectic. He asked if we could take the conversation to my office so that no one would hear him in this state. So we came upstairs, and he sat right there where you are sitting now and told me what had happened. First of all, he was not pleased to see that the pope's private secretary would take part in the meeting. He began to explain the matter that concerned him to the pope. After only a few minutes the private secretary addressed the pope and indicated, 'I can take care of this.' The pope shook his head, and the archbishop continued. Only a few more minutes later the private secretary made the gesture again: 'I can take care of this.' This time the pope nodded yes. At that point the archbishop rose, collected his case, and said to the secretary, 'I have not come all this way to discuss this matter with you, but with the Holy Father!' He went out of the papal apartments and down to the street, without shaking Dziwisz's hand."
As John Paul's meetings grew more ritualized, Ratzinger made his own meetings with the bishops more substantive. Men long in service to the Church had been meeting with him during their ad liminas since the early 1980s. A number of them told me that the Ratzinger they met on their most recent visits seemed more alive and engaged than before. "In December , when I made my ad limina visit, I became even more impressed by his warmth and his listening presence," Harry J. Flynn, the archbishop of Minneapolis—St. Paul, told me. His ten-minute meeting with John Paul, in the company of eleven other bishops from Minnesota and the Dakotas, was followed by a much longer meeting with Ratzinger at the Palazzo Sant' Uffizio, and the contrast between pope and prefect struck him powerfully. "The Holy Father was quite ill—he had weakened considerably in the last years," Flynn recalled. "Cardinal Ratzinger really stood out from the times I'd seen him before, though I can't say that I understand why. He greeted us warmly and individually, looking right into our eyes. Then he sat us down and asked, 'Now, how can we help you?' He was curious about the challenges facing the Church in the United States and in our individual dioceses. He had a beautiful peace about him, and gave the sense that here is a person who truly values my opinion." As they left the palazzo, Flynn turned to the other bishops and, as he remembers it, "expressed the hope that Ratzinger would be elected pope when the time came."
Inevitably, John Paul's failing health called forth prognostication about who the next pope would be. The favorite papabili—the press's favorites, at any rate—were Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan, Cláudio Hummes of Brazil, and Francis Arinze of Nigeria. Ratzinger was sometimes mentioned as a "kingmaker" or a "compromise" candidate. In truth, though, his candidacy was by then well advanced, and several people of influence were actively trying to bring his election about.
The article is broken up onto six different webpages. I would quote at length, but there would be a lot. If you have a chance, check out the January/February 2006 issue of The Atlantic and check it out.