Wind of change in the Vatican
THERE CAN BE few people having any kind of interest in the Catholic Church who are not to some extent aware that since the death of Pius XII in October, 1958, change within it has been remarkably rapid.
• At that time, non-Catholics and Catholics alike felt that an epoch had ended. But even though Pius had himself been the instigator of some very significant changes few could have foreseen the scale and nature of what was to follow under four Popes in less than 25 years.
Its real meaning, implications and value continue to be analysed, discussed and disputed, often brilliantly, sometimes, as often in the current conflict at parish level between "trads" and "trendies", with a degree of acrimony that dismays many who set greater storc by the cardinal virtue of charily.
As good a way as any to approach a calm appraisal is to study what has been brought about at the focal point of the worldwide Church, its central direction and organisation, at the Vatican.
What is it really like there these' days? This has become a very useful question to ask amid the apparent confusions of the Church in the wider world. A new book* seeks to provide its answer.
George Bull carried out his task in the journalist's way. The picture he presents and the conclusions he draws are to a very great extent the result of interviews with some of those who are at the head of affairs in the immediate service of the Pope.
That he was able to secure these is itself a pointer to vast change; for it is hard to imagine a journalist with proper knowledge of Vatican ways — a description which, of course, fits George Bull — contemplating such an exercise even in the relatively relaxed days of John XXIII, who, as the book recalls, exasperated the Curia by spending too long talking to ordinary people instead of attending to his papers. The old Pope's own humorous tolerance of his dutiful persecutors is also reported. "I'm only the Pope," sighed the Pope, No Borgia he.
Little illustrative anecdotes of this sort are used in plenty to enliven the hook. and make a good general read of what is essentially a solid presentation of plentiful the purist finds not all the stories entirely apposite, they are thus far useful. My own favourite is one about Paul VI — perhaps because my own most sustained view of him was in the days when, as Mgr Montini, he was widely, and with a certain awe, held to be Pius Xll's eminence grise, and was hard to visualise as light hearted.
George Bull says he was a spontaneous joker, and that when Cardinal Suenens, "one of the most dignified of cardinals'', started to take a close personal interest in the charismatic movement, Pope Paul greeted him "with raised arms and a boisterous 'Hallelujah'!"
George Bull sees as one of the most visible changes the simplification of papal life and ceremonial.
After the Council of Trent in 1563, he recalls, the personal lives of Popes came mostly to be free or scandal; but the ostentation and pomp associated with the claims of pricely dominion persisted until the Second Vatican Council.
Then, as he says, "one after the other, many of the ambiguous trappings" began to be shed, and "in recent years there has been a metaphorical bonfire of the tinsel and symbols of secular empire and spiritual triumpalism, fuelled by inflation and stretched resources as well as changed religious attitudes."
Entirely to regret this transformation of a pretty thing would. I suppose, be a blameworthy selfindulgence. Just the same, I am glad I saw some of the splendid nonsense in its last days.
It could be fun, as when, for example, I was shown round the storehouses where some of the trappings were kept at the time of the Conclave that elected Pope John.
It was like an Aladdin's cave, crammed with much that was priceless and of great beauty, and a great deal that was vulgar to the point of being both comic and touching.
The man in charge was very proud of his comprehensive stock. "You want angels. for example," he said. "I've got them all shapes and sizes." and he gestured to a Jacob's ladder of shelving. But one could also be touched more deeply by the archaic pomp; for it sometimes dramatically matched the moment, as when I saw battlestained Polish troops seize the sedia gestatoria, the Pope's portable throne, from the shoulders of its bearers and themselves carry aloft Pius XII, the wartime Pope.
Pope John Paul II, not astonishingly, receives the lengthiest description and analysis from Mr Bull, as do his immediate assistants.
The Camerlengo Cardinal Paolo Bertoli — in Charge when the Pope is away — told the author that thanks to modern technology, the Pope can direct Vatican affairs while he is travelling.
The meat of Mr Bull's book, however, for those who read it mainly for information, will be the detailed chapters, largely based on conversations with those directly concerned, about the organisation of the Vatican. the functions and methods of its different departments. It probably provides more precise and detailed facts on all this than any other book in English —even where it concerns money, the sticking point of reticence in all comparable ancient institutions, such as our own monarchy. Finance gets a whole chapter.
Mr Bull certainly asked all the right questions, and received an astonishing number of answers, even if some Of them, for one reader at least, seemed the kind of thing you might expect from a Treasury official in Whitehall skilled at saying nothing but with disarming frankness. The broad conclusion seems to be that the Vatican today "feels very poor even if it looks very rich."
And where does Mr Bull think the Vatican is being taken by the winds of change? He expresses his ideas about this largely by implication throughout the book: but he does give the opinion that a trend towards wide internationalisation will transform the Vatican during the last part of this century, although newcomers may well take from the past elements of the old Papacy which seem out of fashion in the West today.
That could be held to mean that the more it changes. the more it is the same thing; and that is as it should be.
* Inside the Vatican, by George Bull. Hutchinson. £8.95.