Page 4, 24th September 1971

24th September 1971
Page 4
Page 4, 24th September 1971 — A thread through the life of a Pope

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Organisations: Holy Office, French School
Locations: Milan, Montreal, Rome


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A thread through the life of a Pope

DON'T think that Pope Paul VI is a very good theologian." This innocent observation cast the table in to uproar. There were cries of "disloyal" and accusations of "attacking the Pope." Yet there was nothing very startling about the remark.

I have yet to meet anyone who believes that "the world's most distinguished theologian" (whatever that might mean) is the most appropriate person to be elected Pope. One can imagine the unwieldy and intractable encyclical letters that would rattle from the typewriter of, say Karl Rahner.

Conversely, to he elected Pope does not as such endow a man with remarkable theelogical insight. lie still has to work. to read, to study and confer. And the dossiers pile up, as Pope Paul once confided to an Italian journalist. in, a most daunting way.

Nor is it rank prejudice to assert that Italy has not produced theologians in this century whose reputations have gone beyond her frontiers. Anyone who thinks it is prejudice, should think of three contemporaries and send their names to me on a postcard. The judge's decision will be final.

Italian theology is heavily dependent on translations. Its output is artificially boosted by the fact that professors at Rome's international universities often publish in Italian. In any case there are other services which Italians can render to the Church.

Palm Publishers of Montreal have now made available most of Pope Paul's writings before he became Pope. Many of them were occasional and very timebound. Nearly all were pastoral in intent. I am not going to attempt to "review" them, since none of the five volumes is newly published and the best (The Mind of Paul VI) was published as long ago as 1964 by Geoffrey Chapman and provided with an introduction by Cardinal Bea. The aged Cardinal warned that these texts were still "merely the expression of Giovanni Butlista Montini's personality, and not yet that of Paul VI."

True enough, but that is precisely why they are interesting. What coming shadows do they cast before? Life consists in response. not repetition, but through most lives there runs a thread. Can it be detected here?

1 said that the Italian con

tribution to theology in this century was small. But it was not totally negligable. And within the Italian tradition, in the 50's and early 60's, Archbishop Montini was well-informed and highly articulate. He was well read in Italian history — and that is a useful guarantee against the nastier surprises.

More important. he had read widely the so-called "French School." At the time this was a bold thing to do. Some of the victims of Humani Generis were his mentors: de Lubac and Congar particularly. So Archbishop Montini did not have a closed mind, nor was he deterred by Holy Office disapproval.

What he found in the Frenchman was the confirmation of his own sense of the dimensions of the Church as mystery. This theme recurs. E. M. Forster said that for the English, muddle and mystery were one and the same. But in God's approach to man, the element of mystery can never be eliminated — mystery not as the incomprehensible riddle. but as the enlightening cloud which invites one to go even further.

The enlightening cloud is a mystical paradox. Cue for anecdote. Frederick Franck, the Dutch-born American Jewish author-dentist-artist, used to divide the Council Fathers into three categories. "There are the fascists: they do not mind a few little concentration camps — most unfortunate. but sometimes inevitable. Then you get the institution-men: they are not fascists. but they are made by the institution and live for it and defend it. And finally you have the mystics: they are those who know that the

words they use are straw. Paul is a mystic."

Artists have their own way of knowing. This was the judgement of a man who had drawn Pope Paul and told him: "Relax. don't bother about me; just get on with your work and I'll get on with mine."

One senses the mystical element whenever Archbishop Montini begins to speak about the Church. And whenever he speaks of the

Church he speaks also of Christ. The tone changes. Translations do not always bring this out. In these early volumes there are many anticipations of Eeclesium Sum which, with its conversational tone, still remains the most personal of the Pope's encyclicals, the one into which he poured most of himself.

The early writings conclude in the expectation of the Council. Cardinal Montini wrote a long pastoral letter to the people of Milan, at Easter 1962, explaining why the Council had been called and what he hoped it would achieve. Again he sketched out that Christocentric view of the Church which is the dominant of his thinking.

But he did not regard the Council as a panacea. He had read — as the footnotes show — the optimistic works that were being produced, by Hans Kling and the Dutch Bishops, among others. He shared their hopes. in particular for "the reform of ecclesiastical life" which Pope John had already declared to be one of the aims of the Council.

But on "the reform of ecclesiastical life" he had this to say: "In the past this has been a course of action adopted by the saints as well as a clarion-call for rebels, a subject for wishful thinking, the ambition of politicians, the deeply felt need of contemplatives and pastors. the whim of restless and stubborn spirits." I don't suppose that Pope Paul has much time to re-read his earlier writings, but he might well feel that he was altogether too close to the mark there. It. is a good illustration of his sense of complexity. He is certainly not a naive man. He knows the ambiguities which flaw the human condition. The passage quoted above concludes: "Throughout the centuries, reform has been a periodic ferment tending either to revivify Catholic tradition or to disintegrate the life of the Church."

This will be in his mind as the synod discusses the priesthood.

Everyone who holds office in the Church today must expect to be crucified. That is not just a pious figure of speech. but the literal truth. Ask any bishop. Authority is a samdalum, not on account of its inept acts (though they can make things worse), but simply by its very existence.

What could be more moving than Pope Paul's later saying, "We fully realise that the papacy is the greatest

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