This Was the Pope for the Hour at Hand
My conviction grew strongerIn 2004 Cardinal Ratzinger described his early interactions with John Paul II. It was originally published in a collection edited by Wiadyslaw Bartoszewski and then reprinted in Joseph Ratzinger: Wer hilft uns leben? (2005). The integral Italian translation was published in L'Osservatore Romano's special edition dedicated to Roncalli and Wojtyła on the occasion of their canonization. Published here are translated excerpts of the special edition's text.
My first meeting with Cardinal Wojtyła of Krakow — the future Pope John Paul II — was indirect. A friend of mine, the philosopher Josef Pieper of Munster, had attended an international philosophical conference in Naples and he told me that the real event of those days had been the presentation given by the Archbishop of Krakow: there he had finally encountered anew a true philosopher who, with fresh energy and brilliant intuition, was framing the essential questions in a new way, not entangled in academic theories but rather imbued with a passion for knowledge and by the desire for the truth. One ought to remember this name. I remembered it, but at that time I could not find any of Wojtyła's works in any language I knew.
The real first meeting took place at the Conclave following the death of Pope Paul VI. The Cardinal of Krakow greeted me with great warmth and kindness; he had read my book Introduction to Christianity, and so I was not wholly unknown to him. Before the Conclave there was a daily meeting among the cardinals who were already present in Rome, at which — without any particular agenda — one could express one's own ideas concerning the problems emerging in the Church and in the world. It was an excellent opportunity to become acquainted with one another and, at the same time, to gather ideas from the most diverse perspectives on the tasks that the future Pontiff would have to face.
Of course we could not draw up a programme for the new pontificate, but the new Pope — whoever he would be — in this way came to know firsthand what expectations were being nourished in his regard, and what hopes and risks were in the air. The Archbishop of Krakow gave a deep and convincing analysis of the challenges which Marxism, in various ways, represented for the Church in the free world, as well as for the local Churches that were forced to live under the Communist regime. That same year, to my regret I was unable to take the opportunity to become better acquainted with the Polish Cardinals who had come on a visit to Germany, and who therefore naturally made a stop in Munich.
The Archdiocese of Munich and Freising was twinned with the Catholic Church in Ecuador, which on the very days of the visit of the Polish Cardinals, was celebrating a national Marian Congress to which Pope John Paul I, at the request of
the Bishops of Ecuador, had sent me as his Special Envoy. I was so very sorry not to be able to be present in Munich on such an important occasion, but I could not decline this assignment.
It was during my stay in the capital of Quito that I received the terrible news of the death of the good Pope. Bishops and laity had entrusted various messages to me to take to him, which now, in a Rome darkened by the oppressive Sirocco storms [summer wind from the south], I could only lay at the feet of the deceased Pope.
The idea that, for the first time, an Archbishop of Krakow might become Pope was already in the air at the first Conclave of 1978, but the leap that this decision required seemed at that time still too great.
The unexpected death of John Paul I certainly strengthened the feeling that a courageous step toward something new was now needed. A Pope from the Eastern bloc, a Pope for whom "true socialism" had been not a theory but a reality that was lived and suffered on a daily basis — this thought, after the upheavals of 1968 and their Marxist enthusiasm which had only gradually calmed down, was to be taken seriously. And if there was one man who as a philosopher had deeply explored the comparison between Christianity and Marxism, who had as a pastor endured it and as a believer overcome it by praying and placing it before God — was this not perhaps a necessary choice for both East and West, and what the present time needed? I noticed how this man prayed, how he met others in an open way free of prejudice, us Germans, too; and thus my conviction grew stronger that he was the Pope for the hour at hand. I thought about our critics of the Church, here in Germany, who were prepared to find anything negative in the new Pope and, I must admit, I secretly relished the thought that, with this election, they would be left speechless and for the first time be forced to take a breath before finding new arguments for their deep aversion. Or, would they perhaps fail to reflect seriously and listen?
The day he took up ministry was unforgettable, the solemn liturgy in St Peter's Square, during which John Paul II found words that captivated people's attention. Particularly unforgettable was his dramatic appeal to Christians in the world, but also to all hesitant, searching, confused people — to the many who might have felt ready to believe but were afraid that becoming believers would mean renouncing too much of their freedom and the richness of life. Very briefly, I would like to mention several other encounters with John Paul II, which were a gift to me. It must have been in 1979 that the Holy Father called me to Rome to communicate to me that he had the intention of appointing me Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education. It startled me as only two years had passed since my Episcopal Ordination, which the faithful of my diocese and indeed I myself regarded as a promise of fidelity that bound me to my diocese. But there were also more practical reasons which made my leaving at that moment seem impossible. I had confronted several thorny problems. The turmoil that had been unleashed was still in full play. Leaving amid these troubled waters would have been, it seemed to me, an escape, for which I could not take responsibility. I explained to the Holy Father why, at that moment, I could not leave my diocese.
I am still grateful for the great understanding he showed me and for having waived the appointment he had planned. To tell the truth, he gave me to understand that at another time he would consider me for an appointment in the Curia. I could have no objection, because at that time it was important to me that I continue my service in Munich.
The following year brought another meeting: the Pope appointed me as a Relator for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the theme of the family. For me it was an exciting event. It was a matter of reading innumerable responses from Episcopal Conferences and of integrating them into one single relatio. Synod procedures then were not yet as defined as they have since become; there was much more room for improvisation. The best solution and the form of collaboration needed had to be found on a case by case basis. This not only offered a good many occasions to become acquainted with bishops of the universal Church who were gathered there, but it also especially offered the possibility of meeting the Pope, who with humour and lenience overlooked the little mishaps that arose as I carried out my assignment. In the course of those weeks the mutual relationship had become even more cordial and direct.
Again a year later, around February 1981, the Pope gave me to understand that he intended to appoint me to succeed Cardinal Šeper as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In the meantime, Cardinal Šeper had reached his 76th year, but it was not known when he would leave his post. Even though I would have liked to continue my work in Munich for a few more years in order to resolve step by step, as much as possible, the insurgent problems, I didn't dare say no another time; however, I placed a condition on my 'yes', which perhaps would have saved me from going to Rome. I told him that, in view of my academic career, I deemed it necessary, apart from the official responsibility, to be able to and need to continue publishing personally as a theologian: but that I had my doubts as to whether this was compatible with the necessary objectivity of the office. The Pope did not want to decide immediately on the matter, but he promised me that he would seek consultation and then communicate his decision to me. However, on 13 May something terrible happened: I had been at a meeting with priests from the region of Rosenheim in the city of Inn and I was returning home content that all had gone well. At the entrance to the Munich Chancery I saw journalists with television cameras and microphones; I could not imagine what had happened. When I got out of the car, I learned that the Pope had been gravely wounded in an assassination attempt in St Peter's Square and was at the Gemelli Clinic in Rome undergoing a risky operation, the outcome of which was uncertain. I was stunned by the terrible news. It could not be that this great Pope — truly the man of this hour, given to us by God was being taken from us at the very moment in which he, with all the strength of faith and experience, had just begun to open the way once again for the Church, for Christianity, indeed, for humanity, the way to God and, hence, to the dignity of man.
We needed him, it was that simple: the powers of darkness could not be strong enough to take him from us. We all prayed a great deal in those weeks; in all who experienced those days there is a great sense of gratitude for the almost miraculous recovery of the Pope who continued on giving so much to us, to the Church, and to humanity. In the Autumn of 1981
— still visibly marked by suffering — he called me to Castel Gandolfo for a meeting; and, in 1982, began my long collaboration with Pope John Paul II, in which I increasingly learned to venerate this great man of faith.
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