Paul Wilkes: When in Rome

From John Paul II's funeral to Benedict XVI's election, Beliefnet's correspondent reports on the momentous events in Rome.


Continued from page 1

Collegiality and the College of Cardinals

There seems no better time than today to talk about the oft-tossed-about word “collegiality.” Cooperation is another way of saying it, or working as a group for the common good of the church. For this afternoon the 115 voting cardinals gathered together as a body to cast the first votes in this historic conclave.

For the conclave to choose the next pope is the most collegial of Catholic Church rituals. Not only do the cardinals dress exactly alike in their elegant cassocks, with row of red buttons and the blazing wide red sash, but each is considered a "prince of the church," equal among peers in the college of cardinals, their very exclusive club. In the run-up to the conclave, each cardinal was permitted a voice in conversations they held to discuss issues facing the church and therefore to collegially sketch out a rough job description of the kind of man who could best address them.

Of course, some voices were listened to more seriously than others. But when each cardinal writes down the name of another of the cardinals gathered in the Sistine chapel this evening, it will count no more and no less than any other--exactly one. That sometimes bugaboo word within Catholic circles--democracy--reigns here. And yet, once habemus papem,“we have a pope,” rings out across St. Peter’s Square and a white-robed figure appears at that great window, will the fraternite and egalite live on?

Although Pope John Paul II's various documents, as well as those of Vatican II, called for consultations with cardinals, bishops, priests, and lay people--even a radical reconsideration of the role of the papacy--there actually was very little evidence of give and take during his reign. John Paul II’s voice was heard consistently and clearly, and those who sought in the early years of his 26-year reign to register views or bring up issues that he did not want to consider soon found themselves considered unfaithful, then unwelcome, visitors whose very words or writings were going into their personnel file and would neither enhance their career opportunities nor promise access to the pope. By the end of his papacy, certain issues were banned from discussion, and even certain words were banned from use.

Meanwhile, the national groupings of the hierarchy throughout the world--in America called the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops--found their voices muffled. Instead of being active participants in the governance of the universal church, the bishops' dreams faded. Within their dioceses they may look like powerful leaders and teachers, but they are often considered more like branch managers called upon to carry out policies dictated by the home office of what has the appearance of a multinational corporation.

Some say collegiality may be the most crucial, overarching need in the new papacy–-listening, consultative, seeking the unifying balm for a fragmented church that has lived under what some writers even called a monarchical leader, not the more pious approbation, "servant of the servants of God."

So let’s hear from those on the outside looking in and from an insider now looking out:

“The word ‘collegiality’ can mean many different things,” says Father John Navone, who teaches at Gregorian University. “To a great extent it depends on the understanding of those who are defining it--from the broadest, most consultative approach to a more teamwork kind of approach that realizes these are complex times that demand complex thinking--but then clear statements that everyone supports.”

“In this administration, it meant ‘Do you hear me out there? Here is the way it will be,’ says a Rome insider who prefers not to be identified by name. “All this, very collegially, of course. The pope’s choices of bishops showed that he never expected them to be collaborators, but obedient followers.”

Although he was not appointed by John Paul II, Archbishop John R. Quinn served a good part of his time as the leader of the San Francisco diocese under him, from 1977-95. Every five years, bishops come to Rome for their ad limina visits. “These were very spiritual experiences for us bishops, to say Mass with the pope, to be in his presence--but there was a more ceremonial, than practical aspect to them. You would be brought into the pope’s presence for your eight to ten minute visit, he would point to your diocese on the globe, and you would make light conversation and leave.

“To me, it would have been more useful to talk of specific issues. For example, to say 'Archbishop Quinn, how did my encyclical Utunum Sint (On Christian Unity) register in your area of America? Are the Protestants talking about it? What can you do--what can I do--to help the dialogue?' That sort of interchange never took place. The pope would be more conversational at lunch, but I don’t think we bishops were as candid with the many difficulties that we were experiencing as we should have been.”

Catholicism’s revolutionary Second Vatican Council called for a return to a more participatory church so that a variety of voices would be heard. Twelve synods were held under John Paul II; Archbishop Quinn attended three. The archbishop's theologically tuned and very orderly mind often delivers responses in a linear fashion. “As for the synods--one, they were not well organized, two, they were highly controlled, and three, they were not very productive. We bishops offered our views and then when the synod document came out we were never referred to. The Vatican had written the report, not the participants.”

To which my Vatican source, who followed the synods, added, “It was something akin to the Politburo. It didn’t matter what you said. We have the conclusions and policies going into the meetings and we will have the same conclusions and policies when we leave.”

Archbishop Quinn noted an example. “When the Asian synod was in preparation, the Vatican sent out a directive saying that the word ‘subsidiarity’ was not to be used.” Subsidiarity means that church matters should be decided at the lowest possible level, rather than all decisions made by a central authority, namely, Rome. “You can imagine the impact this has; people will be naturally reluctant to express exactly what is at issue in their home diocese if certain useful words are banned from use.”

Father Tissa Balasuriya, the Sri Lankan theologian who was excommunicated by (and later reconciled with) the Vatican for his writings on Mary and original sin, on Saturday restated what to many is the obvious: “The national conferences should have a way to legislate within their own jurisdiction; they know the needs of their people better than Rome.

“There were two great fears during this papacy: the rise of national churches, and schism,” Bishop Quinn said when we talked at length by phone. “These are real fears; every part of the world cannot go about being ‘Catholic’ without any unifying structure. But I think we need not be so strong in the central administration of the church; there are other paths. In fact, the Holy Father’s own documents on collaboration are wonderful guides for the future. We just need to read and follow his words. And I recall a meeting he had with the Pennsylvania and New Jersey bishops where he encouraged their participation in the governance of the church. He has left us a wonderful roadmap for the future of the church.”

Archbishop Quinn was president of the American bishops' conference from 1977-1980, just at the beginning of John Paul II’s reign. For some, these were among the golden years of the American hierarchy, when the bishops spoke boldly, issuing documents on such issues as peace and the economy. “I think those letters did a great service to further the debate by stating church teachings as they relate to a present situation,” Archbishop Quinn said. “Not everyone agreed with us, which was good. They got enormous national and even international attention. They produced the desired effect, which was to raise the issues and engage in honest debate. I just don’t see that same initiative and imagination in the bishop’s group these days.”

In fact, the Vatican further clamped down on these national conferences of bishops in an innovative way, proclaiming they couldn’t rule on any doctrinal issue–loosely defined–without a unanimous vote. “Even when the Immaculate Conception was defined as dogma during Vatican I, 100 bishops left Rome so they wouldn’t have to vote. We bishops and the Vatican both know that such unanimity is a practical impossibility.”

And so, the stage is set for the next pope. Will he rule with the firmness of John Paul II, or lend an ear to fellow bishops and give more freedom to national bishops’ conferences? Which groups within the conclave will stand behind which men, who hold vastly divergent views of collegially, but who see their path as the right one?

“I just hope, in the best collegial style,” Father Andrew Greeley, the sociologist, novelist and Vatican-watcher known for his liberal leanings, told me over breakfast one morning, “that the cardinals have both a perception of themselves as a group looking out to the world and, hopefully, a perception of the world looking in upon them. What will that world see? Only the days ahead, the years ahead will tell us that.”

Snapshots from the Conclave's First Act

In the Catholic tradition, for mortal human beings, the primary source of continuing grace and sustenance is the sacrifice of the Mass. And this morning, the Mass of the Holy Spirit was said in Rome, asking God to guide the cardinals and officially opening the conclave that will select the new pope. What follows are some snapshots from a vantage point close to the altar:


  • The organ prelude echoes through the vastness of St. Peter’s Basilica, then promptly at 10 a.m. two tall candles emerge from the back of the church. Soon a strange sight, even from my vantage point, above eye level of the congregation. All that can be seen behind the candles are bobbing, jagged points of dull white light. Larger. Larger. These are the tips of miters worn by the 115 cardinals, processing slowly up the main aisle. The points grow into the full miters, then the faces below are revealed: old men and still older men for the most part, all hues of skin color, but mostly white. Finally one miter, with just a splash of red atop its crown. It marks the celebrant, Joseph Ratzinger, the dean of the College of Cardinals.


  • The cardinals slowly circle behind the grand, elevated main altar, mount a series of marble steps, and show their reverence by bowing to kiss the altar. In a crypt beneath the altar lies the newly interred mortal remains of Pope John Paul II. What is radiating from that tomb? Is the great man still here in some tangible way? At the end of one of the rows of chairs the cardinals occupy, the papal miter and garb are displayed, a silent reminder that the pope is dead and someone must now carry on as the 265th successor of St. Peter. Which of these men covets this honor and this burden; what have they done to gain it? Each can only surmise, and perhaps secretly wish, who ultimately will wear that special miter in not too many days' time.


  • The service is long, elegant, and intoned in Latin, the eternal language of the Church. Cardinal Ratzinger’s sermon is delivered in Italian, and from his lack of emotion it would appear to be a safe, neutral exegesis of the day’s readings from the Old and New Testament. But when the English translation is handed out, it proves to be nothing of the sort. Ratzinger, going into the conclave as the conservatives’ favorite and--according to the Italian press--commanding a bloc of perhaps 50 of the necessary 78 votes to be elected, rails against “liberalism, “collectivism,” and “relativism.”

    “The small boat of thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves,” he warns. But the sturdy bark of Catholicism shall not be buffeted or set off course by these passing storms. “Having a clear faith…is often labeled as fundamentalism,” he proclaims--and that is clearly the camp in which the cardinal wants to be situated. It is a strong, biblically referenced homily. It is also his final political speech to the gathered cardinals before the conclave begins. It will be looked upon as the platform that led to his successful election as pope or as a brazen attempt to sway the conclave, the final nail in his coffin.


  • As the cardinals file out to still another breathtakingly beautiful organ piece, some now cast a tentative eye to right or left, a little movement they did not indulge upon entering, because their eyes were so fixed on the altar before them. A ripple of applause starts in the midsection of the full church--a strange sound at first on such a solemn occasion--but quickly spreads in both directions, sweeping over the people of God, the laity, and forward to the front of the church where the clergy, older cardinals and bishops are seated. They, too, must now join in.


  • As the applause will not abate, some of the cardinals return the rousing sendoff with shy smiles, a nod here and there. Cardinal Ratzinger is last in the long line. He is stone-faced, not a flicker of emotion. No tide of public approbation or condemnation will move him.


  • The cardinals are gone, but as I come down from my place, I look behind me. The cardinals have taken off their vestments and are now proceeding toward their assembly area to begin the actual conclave. Some stop to kneel and pray at the glass-enclosed sarcophagus of the beloved John XXIII, initiator of the Second Vatican Council and a new era of openness in the church. Others pass the sarcophagus by and proceed directly to the business at hand.

    The Other German

    Either it will go down as one of the seminal moments in the events leading up to the conclave, or it will fade away as no more than a whisper, not even a footnote in history, much less a headline.

    Last night, by chance I was in Trastevere, Rome’s Bohemian sector, attending Mass at the breathtakingly beautiful Santa Maria church. As the Mass began, I was surprised to see that the celebrant was wearing a zucchetto. From the back of the huge church, the skullcap looked purple, marking him as bishop. My eyes slowly adjusted. It was red. The sign of a cardinal.

    It turned out to be not just any cardinal, but Walter Kasper of Germany, whom the Italian newspapers that morning had named as a member of a group of moderates and progressives trying to block the election of a fellow German prelate and current front-runner, the conservative Joseph Ratzinger.

    Political coverage in the Italian press is notorious for passing along as (almost) fact tactfully dropped leaks that are meant to either promote a candidate or poison the well. So this must be taken into account, as the Vatican is a surely a political, as well as spiritual, institution--and there are those who want to float or to torpedo the candidacy of Kasper or any in his ideological camp.

    Cardinal Kasper’s sermon, on this weekend when the gospel reading of the Good Shepherd could have allowed him a warm and fuzzy appreciation of John Paul II, must be viewed as not only a direct rebuff to Ratzinger, but also as a bold and last-minute statement of progressives who believe the Church must chart another path.

    Relying on the translation of National Catholic Reporter’s Stacy Meichtry, who also was there and who understands Italian, Kasper’s sermon seemed to be cautioning both those within the College of Cardinals as well as last night’s jammed church not to indulge in a hero worship that some have called “papidolatry .”

    “Just as it is forbidden to clone others…it is not possible to clone Pope John Paul II,” Kasper said during his forceful 12-minute homily. "Every pope ministers in his own way, according to the demands of his era." His reference to cloning was particularly apt, linking bedrock Catholic teaching to the present moment—a surely not unconsidered statement about choosing the next pope.

    "We need a pastor who is strong but compassionate," he said. "A pastor with a heart." Not exactly words that might be used to describe the other German cardinal. It is not a secret, either in the Vatican or within the Catholic world, that Ratzinger and Kasper occupy contrary positions. Kasper told an Austrian Catholic paper that Dominus Iesus--the pope’s statement, but which bore Ratzinger’s mark, affirming Catholicism’s supremacy--“offended people. And if my friends are offended (referring to his years of Catholic-Lutheran dialogue) then so am I. It’s an unfortunate affirmation--clumsy and ambiguous.” Clumsy and ambiguous are certainly not casual terms between a cardinal and the Vatican.

    In various magazines, such as America in the United States and The Tablet in London, Kasper has repeatedly called for a scaled-down and more temperate church bureaucracy. He has openly supported divorced and civilly remarried Catholics in receiving the Eucharist, something they are currently forbidden under Church law. When Kasper registered his view, Ratzinger rejected this approach and maintained that only those who have received a marriage annulment and therefore are fully in communion with the Church could approach the altar to receive.

    In a 2001 article for America, Kasper said his thinking on the Church of Rome and the Church of the People was “…Reached…not from abstract reasoning, but from pastoral experience. As a bishop of a large diocese, I had observed how a gap was emerging and steadily increasing between norms promulgated in Rome for the universal church and the needs and practices of our local church.” He said his people could not understand the many new regulations and therefore ignored them. Thoughts like these may be in many a bishop’s mind, but few are willing to publish them.

    Kasper’s affinity for Rome’s Trastevere church also says much about the man. This is the home for the Community of St. Egidio, a powerful lay movement whose members both operate soup kitchens and travel internationally as ambassadors of peace.

    That Kasper has been so outspoken as somewhat of a Catholic populist and was so unpretentious about saying the Mass I attended certainly sets him apart from the typical cardinal. He didn’t wear the traditional high-peaked miter and, while other priests were in attendance concelebrating with him, there was none of the clerical fussiness that often attends such occasions. At Cardinal Law’s mass in St. Peter’s last week with its profusion of lace and kneeling attendants, one would have thought a Medici was being crowned.

    Kasper’s tone during the homily was conversational. The Mass seemed more like a weekend liturgy in a normal parish church--a church that included the well-dressed, those in jeans and leather jackets, many young people, young couples with children, as well as the woman who sells roses on the square outside.

    Kasper had kept a low profile since the death and funeral of John Paul II. Until the Santa Maria sermon. One can only speculate: did he want his say before he was sealed into the conclave? Did he want to be able to say to himself, whoever is elected, that he did not remain silent while his brother cardinals did? What was he thinking as he prepared the homily? Perhaps some day we will know if, indeed, this is the headline and not just a footnote for the papal conclave.

    “As the Gospel says, the pastor needs familiarity, mutual caring and reciprocal trust between him and his flock,” he said in that homily. “Let’s not search for someone who is too scared of doubt and secularity in the modern world.”

    If this was not a direct rebuttal of the Ratzinger manner of systematically condemning the ways of the world and the proposing of a new course for the papacy, then either Stacy Meichtry’s translation was faulty or the acoustics were bad last night in Santa Maria in Trastevere. But I think neither was the case.

  • comments powered by Disqus