By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
At the beginning of April 2017 a forum organized by the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation was held in Mainz on the theme “The Three Popes of the 21st Century. Spiritual authorities against a soulless modernity”. Among the speakers there were Marco Politi, a known Vatican expert in Italy and Germany, who worked for a long time as Vatican correspondent for the Italian daily newspaper “La Repubblica” and the Bavarian journalist Peter Seewald, expert and author of many books about Pope Benedict XVI for a quarter of a century.
The presentations focused on the pastoral and theological thinking of the three Popes and their “world-political” action, by which they paved a way for the world church and society which is based on respect for human dignity, peace, justice and the Common Good.
In his presentation “Pope John Paul II – The Politician”, Marco Politi reflected about the global political dimension of Pope John Paul II activities. He qualified him as the “first geopolitical pope of the modern Church,” who travelled around the world during his 27-year pontificate and visited church provinces, among others in South America, Asia, Africa, in order to give the Catholics the opportunity to speak; the first pope who had visited a synagogue, a mosque and a Buddhist temple, and who succeeded in bringing the great monotheistic religions together in a dialogue and give an impulse for “a new evangelization”. Politi characterized him as a “philosopher of history with a deep sense of history.”
He looked back at the historically significant epoch of the 1980s and 1990s. Pope John Paul II perceived the events in Eastern Europe (the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union) from a historical point of view, since he personally had recognized already early that the Communist system was crumbly: “I’ve just shaken the tree. The tree was rotten,” he said once. Nobody could imagine at the time, according to Politi, that the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe would play such a significant role. The Pope always acted as a representative of the Church, pointing to the “identity of the nation”, thus contributing to the success of the movement “Solidarnosc” in a positive, constructive sense. He was “Patriot and Cosmopolitan” – the patriot loves the fatherland, but at the same time respects other nations. After the fall of the wall and the collapse of communism, Pope John Paul II neither showed any sympathy for President Bush’s “political expansionism.” He expressed a “politically balanced attitude”, rejecting the American historian Fukujama’s “end of history”; similarly he didn’t judge the events in Eastern Europe as a “victory of the Cold War.” His “philosophical thinking” became clear during the Balkan wars, where he championed the rights of Bosnian Muslims against Christian-Orthodox Serbia.
In his presentation Politi referred to statements that the Pope made during his flight to Mexico in 1999. Commenting on the historical events of the 1990s, he had said at the time: “Before the collapse of the communist system, there were two superpowers. Now there is only one. I don’t know if this is good.” While the mood in 1989 was marked by euphoria, the Pope during a pastoral visit in the German city Paderborn in 1996, commented even if one had seen the end of the frightening power of the Soviet Union, the world is now confronted with the „radical capitalist ideology.” He strongly rejected the driving forces that were going to spark the financial crisis of 2008. He also clearly opposed the US-led offensive wars, among other things the war against Iraq in 2003. Being already gravely ill, the Pope did everything in his power to ward off the then-threatening Iraq war. He sent his messengers to different countries and received ambassadors. “Today, after 10-15 years, we see that the Pope has been correct in the face of spreading terrorism, which turns out to be a total disaster,” Politi stated.
Pope John Paul II made “world politics” and as a religious leader looked for dialogue with other religions. The focus of his work was cooperation with the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He dreamed of a common prayer on Mount Sinai and organized the first interreligious meeting in Assisi in 1986, – a “world political act”- since this meeting also included an acknowledgment of the dignity of the different religions that are praying to God.
Of great political importance were the continental synods under Pope John Paul II. At that time he used the metaphor of the two “lungs” (East and West) and pointed to the role of the church teachers Cyril and Methodius and Benedict of Nursia who had laid the basis for Christianity in Europe. In the Jubilee year (2000), at the beginning of the 21st century, the pope expressed his famous “Mea culpa.” In his view, there couldn’t be a new evangelization without throwing off the burden of the past (religious wars, the inquisition, the case of Galileo Galileo); also this was a significant political act.
Pope Benedict XVI – the theologian
Peter Seewald, journalist of leading German newspapers and knowledgeable companion and publicist of Benedict XVI, in fall 2016 published the book “Last Conversations- An interview with Benedict” in the Herder Publishing House. During the forum he spoke about “Pope Benedict XVI as a theologian.” With the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013) a „turn of the century”, according to Seewald, was initiated. Pope Benedict as a person withdrew in order to put “Christ at the centre.” Seewald criticized the image which is prevalent in the media, according to which there was a “Ratzinger before the Vatican II Council” and a Ratzinger “after the Council.” “Benedict is a man who could fill a historic biography and who is one of the greatest theologians of our time.” After his election as Pontifex, Benedict XVI said, “Pray for me so that I don’t fear the wolves.”(An allusion to the many opponents within the church E.H.) “Ratzinger is the best thing that could happen to the church,” Seewald emphasized. Serving with Pope John Paul II in a kind of double pontificate, he in his authenticity has a great impact as “a thinker and great theologian.”
With the end of the Second World War, 1945, a new spring was opened for the Church. The idea of a return to Western Christian roots was at that time intensively debated in circles of the church and society. “At that time, we see the young Professor Ratzinger, then already one of the leading theologians of his time, who as a consultant for the Second Vatican Council (including for Josef Cardinal Frings from Cologne E.H.) was deeply impressed by Pope John XXIII, and closely linked to the theologians Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar, who understood themselves as progressive, but in the sense of a “renewal of Christianity from the roots”.
Against the “decline of Christianity” Ratzinger defended “the principle of renewal and consolidation of faith.” He was not a man of great gestures and led his pontificate “with dignity and as a bridge builder.” In times when “show” and “fake news” are prevalent, he is the one who feels committed to the truth. In times of darkness and when people are alienated from God, he wants to guide people to God. “In his first encyclical Deus Caritas est many of the reforms outlined here are continued under Pope Francis”, remarked Seewald. These include the synods, the collegial style of the clergy, the adjustment of the Vatican finances, and so on. Pope Benedict XVI attracted a lot of attention with his criticism of “Turbo capitalism” by reminding that the dignity of man is inviolable. He was in a sense the first pope who put the ecology of man in harmony with God’s creation. He visited the Lutheran Church and met representatives of Islam, with whom he shared a clear rejection of fundamentalism. He also envisioned for the Jewish world a better basis for reconciliation in the sense of the Old and New Testament. If religion was in harmony with science and reason, this also would guarantee that faith did not slip into fundamentalism.
Pope Benedict XVI saw himself in a struggle against “relativism” and the weapons he used for this fight were “quiet” weapons.The three volumes on “Jesus von Nazareth” published during his pontificate, which is sold worldwide in millions of copies, underlines that he is one of the greatest theologians of today. Likewise he is a “poet and artist” – every encounter with him is “musical”.
“Pope Francis among wolves”
On the background of the presentations that were given in Mainz, it is worthwhile to take a look at the book of Marco Politi, re-edited and published in the Herder Publishing House in 2017 Pope Francis among the wolves – the pope and his enemies. An amazing insight is given by this book, in which the Vatican expert Marco Politi describes the career of the priest, Jesuit professor and later Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio in Argentina, in the metropolis of Buenos Aires. Here, Archbishop Bergoglio, in direct contact with the misery and drug mafia districts, the so-called “Villas miserias”, learned about poverty. For him, the “option for the poor” was formulated at the large gatherings of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference during the past 50 years in Medellin, Puebla, Santo Domingo and Aparecida.
Pope Francis wants to see the Catholic communities of the world linked together not so much on the basis of legal regulations, but rather on the basis of love, Politi writes. He wants to shape a “dynamic church,” a church which is convincing: this includes the principle of “collegiality” demanded by the Second Vatican Council, according to which the Pope and the Bishops together, like St Peter, united with the Apostles of the Church, share responsibility in guiding the Church. He needs Bishops to whom every form of careerism is alien. Already 30 days after the conclave he set up a working group comprising 8 Cardinals from 5 continents: “Consultants like coordinates on the map of the globalized church.”
In his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis emphasized that the problem of the poor can only be solved if the doctrine of the “absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation” is abandoned. He is clearly against the ideological optimism of an “unbridled neoliberalism” that Pope John Paul II had resolutely rejected before. “The statements of Pope Francis are part of the solid tradition of the Social Doctrine of the Church.” For Bergoglio, who was “always opposed to Marxist liberation theology,” the capability to integrate the poor into society will be the decisive theme of the 21st century. The plan of his pontificate, according to Politi, is to reform the curia so that it becomes leaner and more effective; bring the Vatican Bank (IOR) into order and strengthen the “collegiality” by way of frequent consultations between the Pope and the Cardinals, as well as bishops’ conferences, in order to give the world episcopate the possibility to participate in the strategic decisions of the Pope. Francis’s revolution therefore must be seen as a “missionary transformation of the Church”. “He wants to reform the clergy. Bishops should point the way, but not be rulers. This also includes a “reform of the Papacy” which better reflects the “meaning that Jesus Christ wanted to give it” and which “corresponds better to the current needs of evangelization”. He calls it the “conversion of the Papacy.”
Politi quotes the Uruguayan lawyer Guzmán M.Carriquiry, deputy secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and expert of the Curia, who used an interesting image when speaking about the reform of the papacy: “Bergoglio is the successor of Petrus, not the successor of Constantine.” (Roman emperor autocrat E.H.). Pope Francis, according to Politi is opposed to an excessive centralization of the Church and refers to the encyclical Ut unum sint of John Paul II, which in view of ecumenical reunification expressed the desire to look for a new model of papal primacy, a model that should be worked out together with the heads of the other Christian Churches. “From our Orthodox brothers one can still learn the meaning of episcopal collegiality and the tradition of synodality,” the Pope should have said once.
Excommunication, the organized crime and the anger of the Mafia
The enemies of Pope Francis however act and speak in secret. “They applaud with the others and hypocritically pretend to be loyal to the pope, and they don’t like it when they are described as opponents of the Argentine Pontifex,” says Politi. In the US opponents of pope Francis use the website “Tradition in Action”, and increasingly the ones who see themselves in the “traditionalist” forefront, are becoming more and more aggressive and spread their poison against the pope’s words, which they call “misleading”, “incomprehensible” or “unsuitable”.
Bergoglio was and is very conscious about the link that exists between “networks of corruption and Mafiosi associations”. Politi reports about a prayer in the Church of San Gregorii (2015), which was attended by the Pope in memory of the victims of the Mafia, with 700 relatives present. In his urgent message the Pope addressed those “Who are absent … the men and women of the Mafia. The bloody money, the bloody power is meaningless in the next life: “Converse, I beg you on my knees… convert, there is still the time to do it, so that you don’t end in hell”, he stated in his message. In a Mass in Sibari (Calabria 2015) he launched the excommunication from the Church against the Mafiosi, which no Pope has done before him. “This is the N’drangheta: the adoration of evil and contempt for common good,” the Pope explained. “This evil must be combated and removed! You have to say no to it! The Church has to engage more and more so that the Good can win. This is what our children demand from us, that our young people, who need hope, demand from us … Those who follow their path of evil, like the Mafiosi, are not in communion with God: they are excommunicated.”