National Catholic Reporter ®

April 5, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 32

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Don’t expect a resignation; a U.S. tour;
Interesting words from the pope’s preacher

“It is more important that men and women become holy,” Cantalamessa said, standing in the center of a magnificent basilica erected to celebrate the earthly might of Catholicism and the papacy, “than that they know the name of the one Savior.”


Christianity has always imposed a somewhat schizophrenic self-understanding on its adherents. On the one hand, we are called to believe that God has a precise plan for each of us, that we are important co-participants in building the Reign of God. On the other, we are also told that Jesus’ victory on the cross is final, that the ending of the cosmic story has already been penned, and that salvation comes through grace and not our own merits.

     Hence we are called, in a sense, to work as if everything depends on us, and to pray as if nothing does.

     What is true for all Christians is a fortiori true of popes. A pope cannot help but sense that God has a special part for him to play in salvation history. On the other hand, a pope must also maintain perspective, realizing that the future is in God’s hands.

     I suspect every pope oscillates between these two poles, between believing that everything depends on him and that nothing does. 

     John XXIII offered a wonderful example of the second disposition. He once said that when he found himself worrying late at night, he would turn to God in prayer, saying, “It’s up to you now. I’m only the pope, and I’m going to bed.”

     John Paul II, by way of contrast, tends to accent the other end of the equation, seeing himself as a lead actor in the cosmic drama. He believes, for example, that on May 13, 1981, the Blessed Virgin altered the flight path of a bullet in order to preserve him in office. He later deposited a bullet that doctors removed from his body in the crown of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal.

     (This conviction obviously begs the question of why the Virgin allowed the pope to be shot in the first place. His closest aide, personal secretary Bishop Stanislaw Dsizwsz, in a rare public lecture some months ago supplied the answer. The pope’s blood had to be spilled, Dsizwsz argued, in order to augment his witness against bloodshed in the world, above all with respect to abortion. It has always impressed John Paul and Dsizwsz that the Italian left had scheduled a major abortion rights rally in Rome the evening of May 13, 1981, which was cancelled out of respect for the fallen pope).

     I underline John Paul’s sense of election in the context of his obvious fatigue during Holy Week. Severe arthritis in the pope’s right knee, taken in combination with his other ailments (Parkinson’s disease, the lingering consequences of a bad hip replacement surgery, his difficulties hearing and speaking), forced the pope to curtail his public functions. For the first time, for example, two cardinals were delegated to perform the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday in St. Peter’s Basilica (Sodano and Etchergeray) while the pope watched. 

     In an analysis for the April 12 print edition of NCR, I write that Holy Week 2002 marked the beginning of a new phase in the John Paul years, one in which the pope becomes a spectator to his own pontificate. He will increasingly be sitting passively as other people do and say things for him.

     The pope’s struggles triggered yet another round of talk about whether or not he might eventually resign. I have been asked repeatedly for my view, and here it is: I believe he will not resign. John Paul has an almost messianic sense of his papacy, and messiahs don’t take a golden parachute.

     I distinguish here between “resignation,” in the sense of a voluntary abdication of the papal office, and provision for a transfer of power in the case the pope were to become incapacitated. We know, thanks to the book Paul VI in His Own Words by the pope’s former personal secretary Pasquale Macchi (now a bishop), that Paul VI deposited a letter of resignation with Macchi. It was to be used in case “conditions should be verified in which it would be impossible [for Paul] to continue the governance of the church in an adequate way.” 

     Many believe John Paul II has also written such a letter, and I find the hypothesis plausible.

     That’s different, however, from the pope making a decision to stand down because he’s old and tired, in order to return to Poland and spend the rest of his days in quiet contemplation in the mountains. John Paul obviously does not feel at liberty to make such a choice. On May 17, 1995, the eve of his 75th birthday, the pope told a general audience that he would leave it to Christ “to decide when and how he wants to relieve me of this service.”

     Recently Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, the Chilean who heads the Congregation for Divine Worship, told reporters that he was present once when someone asked the pope why he does not resign. The pope’s response, according to Medina: “Because Jesus did not come down from the cross.”

     It is a revealing remark. John Paul II identifies his sufferings with those of Christ, and sees himself called as Christ was to bear his cross until his mission is finished.

     On May 13, 2000, during the Jubilee Year, John Paul instructed Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano to publicly reveal the long-awaited “Third Secret of Fatima.” It turned out to be a vision of a bishop dressed in white who “makes his way with great effort towards the cross amid the corpses of those who were martyred … he, too, falls to the ground, apparently dead, under a burst of gunfire.” The pope recognized himself and the martyrdoms of the 20th century in the vision, an interpretation confirmed, according to Sodano, by Carmelite Sr. Lucia dos Santos, the last surviving Fatima seer.

     If Karol Wojtyla were the chairman of the Coca-Cola Company, I doubt even then he would be thinking about resignation. The man’s determination is that enormous. But seeing himself as the instrument of God in the quasi-apocalyptic scenario expressed in the Fatima vision, I’m sure John Paul cannot imagine voluntarily relinquishing that role. 

     Hence my bottom line: Do not expect cannon 332.2, the codicil of the Code of Canon Law governing papal resignation, to be invoked anytime soon.

* * *

     I write this week’s column from the United States, where my colleague Robert Blair Kaiser and I will be spending the next three weeks barnstorming the country, talking about the next pontificate and the future of the church. (Many of you may have read Bob’s piece in Newsweek this week about the impact of John Paul’s failing health on decision-making in the Vatican). 

     For readers in the U.S. who might be interested, here are the details of our appearances:

  • April 4th (Thur) - University of Dallas, Church of the Incarnation at 7:30 pm. The church is located on the campus up the hill from the Maher Athletic Center. Kaiser alone.

  • April 8th (Mon) - University of San Francisco, McLaren Auditorium in Phelan Hall, 4:00 pm. Afterwards there will be a reception and dinner at Loyola House (Jesuit Community) for the two speakers and their families and selected guests.

  • April 9th (Tues) - University of Santa Clara, Performing Arts Recital Hall, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara. (Southwest of San Jose Airport). Meet the Speakers, Book Signing 7 to 7:30 pm, Lecture, Dialogue with Audience, 7:30 to 9 pm, Speaker’s Reception, Refreshments 9 to 9:45 pm.

  • April 10th (Wed) - St. Mary’s College, Moraga, CA, Dryden Hall, near campus chapel, 7:30 p.m. Bob Kaiser alone.

  • April 11th (Thur) - John Allen alone, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, Hilton 300. 12 - 1:30 p.m.

  • April 11th (Thur) - Riverside, California. Newman Center (St. Andrews), 7-10 p.m. 105 W. Big Springs Road, Riverside, CA. 

  • April 13th (Sat) - Phoenix, Saturday, 10 am, St. Patrick’s Church, 10815 North 84th St., Scottsdale, AZ 85260.

  • April 15th (Mon) — 4 p.m. Medill School of Journalism Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois. 

  • April 16th, (Tues) Charlotte, NC. Ecumenical Institute of Wake Forest University and Belmont Abbey College. At Myers Park Baptist Church, 7:30 pm.

  • April 18 (Thurs) St. Louis University, Lower College Church. 7 pm. 

  • April 23rd (Tues) - Columbia University, N.Y. 11:30-1:00 pm. Religion and Journalism
     Seminar, by invitation only. 
  • April 23rd (Tues) - St. Peter’s College, Jersey City, NJ, St. Peters Hall, Kennedy and Glenwood Avenues, in Degnan Room, by invitation only. 3:30 pm.

  • April 24th (Wed) - Trinity College, Hartford, CT, The Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, McCook Auditorium, 4:15 pm. Book signing afterward at Gallows Hill Bookstore (walk from McCook).
* * *

     One of the last things I did before leaving Rome was attend the Good Friday liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica. As happens every year, the homily was entrusted to the preacher of the papal household, Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, whom I find a very impressive figure.

     (Being preacher of the papal household means that each Advent and Lent, Cantalamessa offers weekly meditations to the pope, officers of the curia and the papal household, and to major superiors of religious congregations. He’s been doing it for 23 years, and says John Paul has only missed two sermons in that time, when he was traveling in Latin America. When he returned to Rome he headed straight for Cantalamessa and apologized for being absent.)

     Cantalamessa is involved in the charismatic movement in the Catholic church, writing books and giving conferences and retreats on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He comes across as a spiritual, humble, and pastoral man, and in his sermons for the pope and the curia one can often sense him trying to gently push the envelope of Vatican thinking.

     On Good Friday, it was Cantalamessa’s line about the Middle East that made news. Asking for prayers for the peoples of Palestine and Israel, Cantalamessa said we should pray especially that the great powers “not imitate Pilate, washing his hands” of the situation.

     For me, however, the most striking portion of Cantalamessa’s homily were his words about Catholics and other religions. This of course has been a front-burner topic in Vatican politics since the September 2000 document Dominus Iesus, issued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It asserted that non-Catholics are in a “gravely deficient position,” and urged strong new evangelizing efforts.

     Cantalamessa struck a different tone. While acknowledging that one must avoid relativism, or the attitude that one religion is as good as another, Cantalamessa gently suggested that conversion of heart is a far more profound objective than conversion of creed. It is more important to help people in their walk with God, he suggested, than to sell them on a particular brand name in the religious marketplace.

     “It is more important that men and women become holy,” Cantalamessa said, standing in the center of a magnificent basilica erected to celebrate the earthly might of Catholicism and the papacy, “than that they know the name of the one Savior.”

     It was an interesting Good Friday counter-point … all the more so, given that in the front row among Cantalamessa’s listeners was Ratzinger himself.

* * *

     A final note. John Paul II recently became the sixth longest serving pope in church history, at 23 years, 5 months, and 7 days. The top five are:

        5. Hadrian I: 23 years, 10 months, 24 days

        4. Pius VI: 24 years, 6 months, 7 days

        3. Leo XIII: 25 years, 5 months

        2. Pius IX: 31 years, 7 months, 21 days

        St. Peter: traditionally set at 36/37 years

      John Paul jokingly said to a group of friends at a lunch in January 2001 that since he had beatified Pius IX, he hoped Blessed Pius would help him “reach the years of his pontificate.” As you can see, that would mean eight more years, a further signal that John Paul is not planning on hanging up his mitre anytime soon.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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