Page 10, 1st March 1991

1st March 1991
Page 10
Page 10, 1st March 1991 — The Jesuit general and the Polish panzer
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Locations: Kansas City, London, Rome

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The Jesuit general and the Polish panzer

THERE are some stories that cannot be told in the chaste columns of obituaries. But they can be told here. In October, 1979, 1 went to live in Rome as "Vatican Affairs Writer" for The National Catholic Reporter.

It is edited from Kansas City, Missouri, for reasons I am sure I will one day explain. Enough to say that local comedians make jokes about how horrible Kansas City is in order to stop the place becoming overcrowded with dudes.

No sooner had I arrived in Rome than Fr Pedro Arrupe asked me to see him. This was astonishing. Here was I, although duly laicised thanks to Pope Paul VI, blessed with all seven sacraments of the church but undubitably an ex-Jesuit. This did not seem to worry Don Pedro.

He welcomed me with great affection. I had chaperoned him on his visit to London in, 1 think, 1971, scripted a Farm Street sermon for him and prepared him for a TV interview with Malcolm Muggeridge.

But none of this was relevant in 1979. "We mustn't talk business," he began, "this is a Meeting of friends". What do you say after that? We chuntered on for a bit about Fr X and Br Y back in little old England.

Then I ventured a bold question: "How do you get on with Pope John Paul II?" He looked at me intently. "Off the record?" he asked. "Off the record," I conceded.

"The Holy Father," said Don Pedro, "is Polish, very Polish. He is a tank, a Panzer."

Before I could ask any further questions, he indicated that the interview was at an end.

Forgetting my status, I fell to my knees to crave his paternal blessing, He blessed me, but then lifted me up and embraced me. This said something about the wider Jesuit family. "There is no such thing as an ex Jesuit," as his successor, Peter Hans Kolvenbach, assured me many years later. I was deeply moved on both occasions.

Plainly daft

THEN I remembered the first time I met Fr Arrupe. It was in 1965 during the final session of the Council. Some paper had published a silly story about him, suggesting that in the Council he would line up with the conservatives in the Roman curia.

This was plainly daft. The problem was how to reply. He agreed to give me an interview. It was rather awesome to interview someone still largely unknown who had hitherto been addressed as "Your Paternity" (you could almost hear the capital letters).

I explained to him the difficulty of interviewing one's superior. I would have no credibility unless I could be critical. I ventured to quote Figaro's motto in Beaumarchais' play: "Without the freedom to criticise, no praise has any value."

He loved that. Okay, he said, and off we went. Needless to say, after that I found it very difficult to be more than mildly critical of him.

Slip of the dome

WHILE on Jesuit generals, I wonder how many people could answer the question: which SJ general was elected in one world war and died in the midst of another?

The great man was, of course, Wlodmir Ledachowski, elected on February 11, 1915 (how did Jesuits from the central powers get there?). He died on December 13, 1942, and the

congregation to elect his successor was delayed until 1946.

There is only one story about this holy man in the oral tradition. Though a Polish prince, he was very austere and his soutane was reputedly bottle-green with age. From his window could be seen the dome of St Peter's. He loved to point this out to visitors.

But his grasp of Italian remained somewhat imperfect, and he would say to them: "I am a very fortunate man. From my window 1 can sec the copula of St Peter's."

No one ever dared correct his mistake.

Prudent man

OTHERWISE he remained a very shadowy figure, turning up in the early Vatican wartime diplomatic documents defending Vatican Radio against accusations of pro-Allied bias.

But Fr Ledachowski has an important walk-on part in Giancarlo Zizola's book on Fr Riccardo Lombardi, God's Microphone (Mondadori, not yet translated). It is good that he should be rescued from obscurity.

He comes across as the prudent man par excellence. This is one Jesuit type. Prudence is the only virtue you can learn by making mistakes.

Ledachowski's prudence comes out in his dealings with Riccardo, appointed to Civilta Cattolica, the Rome fortnightly, in 1938.

Riccardo was a passionate Neapolitan who during his tertianship the previous year had annoyed the British and American brethren (do any survive?) by lauding the Italian civilking mission in Ethiopia. It included using poison gas — but Lombardi may not have known that.

He went on to specialise in praembula fidei or apologetics, what later was to be called frontier-questions. Ledachowski's advice was as follows: "Never write about anything without consulting someone more knowledgeable than yourself. In disputed matters, never write without talking to someone from either side."

Ledachowski no doubt meant that Riccardo was to consult fellow-Jesuits. It was a very fashionable idea in the 1950s. Behind every Jesuit in the public eye lurked another who was invisible. Fr Joe Christie was the front man, but behind him lurked Fr Bill Lawson, supplying live ammo, "devilled" for him. It was the back-room boy or boffin idea, no doubt derived from the war.

Pi in the eye

LOMBARDI illustrated another Jesuit type, now extinct. He was incredibly pious. This has nothing to do with actually being holy. It has to do with being "pi" as it was called.

Like the scout who smiles and whistles under all circumstances, Lombardi had an appropriately "pi" remark for all seasons. He was the most famous broadcaster of the age.

To the technicians in the RAI studio who congratulated him and asked where he learned his technique he replied: "It's not a matter of technique. I learned it all on my knees."

He did not even spare his old mum. After a week's preaching in Florence cathedral in 1948, the crowds were in ecstasy. His habit of saying "as Jesus said to me" convinced them he had special powers. They thronged about him as he came down from the pulpit, pressing little notes into his hands with requests for favours.

He arrived in the sacristy, exhausted, bathed in sweat, to find his mother waiting for him. "Tell me Riccardo," she asked, "don't you ever feel proud of yourself'?"

The preacher mopped his brow, took a sip of the mulled wine that had been prepared for him, and looked his mother straight in the eye.

"No, mamma," he replied, "I assure you that no such thoughts cross my mind. I see it so clearly: it is Jesus that does it all."

The Bluffer's Guide to Piety. To be continued.




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