By Cardinal Franz Konig
THIS YEAR in the second half of June (June 19-21), Pope John Paul II visited Austria for the third time. Opinions in the country were divided as to whether this was an opportune moment for such a visit, given the difficulties in the Austrian Church. However, the festival service in Heldenplarz in Vienna on Sunday June 20, became a celebration of the faith for the many participants thronging the square.
The physical frailty of the Holy Father, the carefully prepared liturgy of the service, the noticeable involvement of the large crowd and the words of the Holy Father, particularly with reference to Europe, amazed me yet again and led me to ask what influence the Bishop of Rome and successor of St Peter can still exert today over a national Church and also worldwide.
Today, in our disturbed world, this office extends beyond the sphere of the Christian Church, of the ecumenical community of the Christian churches. His statements concerning human rights, justice and peace as the basis of ordered co-existence, despite historical and cultural differences, still seem to have a greater influence than is commonly assumed. Hence my question at that moment was: was this always the case, or has the status of the pope increased in our century, despite all the difficulties?
I look back. In the course of a long life I recall that I have known no fewer than six popes from the various perspectives of different periods of my life. When I was a young theologian, it was Pius XI (1922-39), who with Mit Brennender Sorge ("With Burning Heart", from the opening words of his encyclical against National Socialism) pointed out that Hitler constituted a great danger, and who endeavoured to hinder the outbreak of a fresh war in Europe. As a young man I was impressed that Pius XI, who came from Northern Italy, was well known as a mountain climber and had even once had to spend the night in the snow and ice of the Alps.
I was also impressed that the establishment of the Vatican City as a papal state, in peace agreement with the Italian government (Mussolini), gained the Church more freedom of action. Later I panicularly admired his efforts to help in the spiritual rebuilding of a Europe which had been devastated by the First World War. His emphasis on the coresponsibility of the laity in the Church was no doubt the first step in the direction of a new perception of the Church, as was later formulated in the Second Vatican Council.
His successor, Pius XII (1939-58) wished to emphasise through his choice of name his closeness to his predecessor, whom he had served for a long time as secretary of state. The difficult conditions of the time, Hitler's political racial doctrine, a world war affecting the whole of Europe (1939-45), the holocaust of the Jewish people, a devastated Europe which was divided into two parts by the Iron Curtain between the sphere of influence of the US in the West and the Warsaw Pact states in the East this was the gloomy picture pervading the early days of the pontificate.
Central Europe was divided into zones of occupation, and people in the Russian zone had a particularly hard time. Then in 1955, as a result of the State Treaty, Eastern Austria, which was partly occupied by Russian troops, was free again. I will never forget the jubilation of my compatriots who, with tears in their eyes, could scarcely believe that our homeland was free again. However East Germany which was under Marxist rule, was not able to return to greater Germany until the collapse of communism in 1989/90.
Pius XII he had been nuncio in Germany for several years and his command of the German language was perfect
caused a sensation with his ascetic appearance and his great speeches in the cause of peace. His historical image is still disputed because of the reproach that he did too little to make the world aware of the persecution of the Jews under National Socialism. At first he thought that communism as an anti-Christian, anti-religious force constituted the greater danger. Even if, at the beginning, he failed to judge properly the demon of the Third Reich, subsequently he did a great deal to save the lives of persecuted Jews.
In the year 1952, Pius XII appointed me to the position of Bishop-coadjutor of St Polten, a diocese adjacent to Vienna, and I twice had the opportunity to talk at length with him. Compared with his preponderant interest in Germany, I always found that his interest in Austria was rather slight. I well remember a meeting in the year 1956. The nuncio in Vienna at that time informed me that I was to succeed the well-known Vien nese Cardinal Ionizer. Since I did not wish to accept such an appointment, the nuncio suggested that I should inform the Holy Father personally of my reasons. I did this. I explained to the Pope my reasons for not wishing to take over the office of Archbishop of Vienna.
At the end of a somewhat long discussion, the Pope commented, "Fine, I am prepared to reconsider the matter and to take your objections into account. But," he added, "if my choice again falls on your person, what will you do then?" You know what I did then. In that conversation I noticed how greatly the Pope was marked by his illness, a constant hiccoughing. I was also aware of how lonely he had already become, in the previous few years he had not appointed any secretary of state.
The decision of the conclave in the year 1958 was as follows: the new pope was to be the former nuncio in Paris, and Patriarch of Venice, Angelo Roncalli. This was a great surprise for me. My thoughts were to the effect: after the great, eloquent, impressive Pius XII, an unknown old man? That's bound to go wrong. Fine, I thought to myself, it will be a short pontificate, and then there will be a new pope and he will be the decisive one.
The shock turned into a great surprise. After a short time, John XXIII astonished not only his Church but also the world with his simplicity, his humour, his appealing trust in God and his endeavour always to see first what is good. He took people's hearts by storm. His greatest deed was the summoning of the Second Vatican Council in the year 1962, of which no-one initially would have thought him capable.
In a personal conversation he said to me at that time: "Do you know, at first I thought that such an idea was a 'temptation of the evil enemy'." However, in the following days and in constant prayer, it became clear to him, "This thought comes from above." I do not need to relate here how important this couricil was for the Church's path into the third millennium.
At the beginning of his pontificate, John XXIII admitted me into the college of cardinals, advised me later to visit Cardinal Mindzenty in the American Embassy in Budapest and thereby set me on the track of devoting my particular attention to the Church in Eastern Europe and above all to the bishops, recommending me to visit them as often as possible. I did this, and becoming acquainted with Eastern Europe was a great and valuable experience for me.
John XXIII, the benevolent pope, died in 1963 after thc
first session of the Secon. Vatican Council. The whol world mourned his death Shortly before he died, wanted to pay him a last visit but this was no longer possi ble, As a keepsake, the secre tary of state brought me th Holy Father's pectoral cross which I have worn ever since • Read about the Cardinal memories of Paul VI, John Pat, I and John II next week.