by Vittorio Messori
December 24, 2014, originally published in Corriere della Serra, English Translation in Rorate Caeli
Editor’s Note: The article below by the most influential religious analyst in Italy, Vittorio Messori (main editor, among others, of the Ratzinger Report and of John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope), has caused great sensation in the country since its publication in the Italian paper of record, Corriere della Sera, on Christmas Eve. The reactions from “Progressive” authors have been violent and aggressive – in response to a text that is actually very mild and terse, and regarding an author who was from the very beginning a huge supporter of the papal election of Cardinal Bergoglio. We translate, you decide why the reaction has been so.
I believe that honesty demands I admit it from the first: perhaps I am abusing the space given to me by my putting forth more than an article but rather what is a personal reflection. I confess that I would have willingly put off writing this, if I had not been asked to do so. Yes, I would have put it off, because my own (and not only my own) appraisal of this pope oscillates continually between support and perplexity, a judgment that changes according to the moment, or a particular occasion, or in relation to subjects that are discussed. A Pope who was not expected. For what it is worth, I was among those who were waiting for a South American and someone who is pastoral, someone with experience of everyday governance, a sort of balance for an admirable professor, a theologian too refined for certain palates, like the beloved Joseph Ratzinger. A Pope who was not expected, but who quickly, right from that very first “Buonasera” has shown himself to be nothing anyone could have forseen, so much so as to make some of the Cardinals who elected him to gradually change their minds about him.
This quality of “not knowing what to expect” continues, agitating the tranquility of the ordinary Catholic who is accustomed to not think too much about faith and morals and who has been exhorted to “follow the Pope”. Indeed, but which Pope? The one who gives daily homilies in Santa Marta, the preaching of a parish priest of the old days, with good counsel and wise proverbs, with even firm warnings to not fall into the traps of the devil? Or the one who telephones Giacinto Marco Pannella, who was in the midst of one of his innocuous fasts, and who greets him with “Keep up the good work”! when for decades the “work” of this radical leader consisted of and still consists of preaching that true charity lies in the battle for divorce, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality for all, gender theory and the like? The Pope who recently in a talk given to the Roman Curia sounded like Pius XII with conviction (but really like Saint Paul himself) defining the Church as “the mystical Body of Christ”? Of the one who, in the first interview with Eugenio Scalfari, ridiculed whoever might have thought that “God is Catholic”, as if the one, holy, apostolic Roman Church were an option, an accessory to somehow get to the Holy Trinity according to one’s personal tastes? The Argentine Pope who is aware, through direct experience, of the drama of Latin America that is on its way to becoming an ex-Catholic continent, with the exodus in mass of its people to Pentecostal Protestantism? Or the Pope who flies to embrace and wish good success to a dear friend, a pastor actually in one of the communities that are emptying out Catholic communities and doing so exactly with that proselytism that he condemned among his own flock?
One could go on, naturally, with these facets that appear—and perhaps truly are—contradictory. One could, but that would not be right for the believer. They know that they are not to see the Pontiff as an elected president of a republic, or like a king, the heir to another king. Certainly, in a conclave, those instruments of the Holy Spirit, within the context of faith, are the cardinal electors who share the limits, the errors, yes, even the sins that are the mark of all of humanity. But the one and true head of the Church is Christ himself, all powerful and all knowing, who knows a bit better than we do what would be the better choice as regards to his representative at this time in this world. This choice can appear disconcerting to the limited vision of those of us who live at this time, but that in the future, from an historical perspective, it will be revealed why this was the right choice. The one who really knows history is surprised and pensive when he discovers that –in the perspective of two thousand years, which is the Catholic perspective—every Pope, whether he is aware of it or not, has carried out the role he was meant to and, in the end, how things were meant to turn out.
Precisely because of this awareness I have chosen, for my part, to observe, listen and to reflect without hazarding adopting opinions that are intemperate or even reckless. I go back to that question that has been cited too often out of its context: “Who am I to judge?” I am on the same plane as everyone else, just one man. I am not assisted by the “pontifical charisma”, the assistance that is promised by the Paraclete. And to the one who would want to judge, does not the full approval of the “Pope Emeritus” (so different in style, formation and understanding of what needs to be done), repeated many times, in speech and in writing, of what Francis is doing count for nothing?
It is a terrible responsibility for the one who is called today to respond to the question: “ How can we bring the message of the Gospel to contemporary man? How can we show that Christ is not a faded and remote ghost, but is the human face of that creator God who is Savior, who wants to give meaning to life and death to all?” There are many responses to these questions, often contrasting with each other.
Even if it counts but little, after decades of working within the Church, I may well have my own answers to these questions. I may well, I say: the use of the conditional tense here is obligatory, because nothing and no one makes me certain of having had a glimpse of the right way to go. Would I not be taking the risk of becoming perhaps like the blind man in the Gospels who wanted to lead others who were blind and all ended up in the ditch? And so, certain pastoral choices made by the “Bishop of Rome”, as he prefers to call himself, persuade me; but others seem to leave me perplexed, they seem to me to be opportunistic, even seeming to be of a brand of populism that generates an interest that is as vast as it is superficial and ephemeral. I might prefer that there be other matters with greater sense of priority and content that would in hope result in an apostolate that is more fertile. I should hope, I should think so, all in the conditional, I repeat, as a perspective of faith demands where even a lay person (as in Canon Law) can express his thoughts and concerns, as long as they are well considered and well motivated, on the ways and means of evangelization I will leave, however, the general strategy and, above all, the custody of the depositum fidei up to the man who came out from the conclave dressed in white. In any case, I have not forgotten how Francis himself recalled in that harsh address to the Curia that it is easy to criticize priests, but how many pray for them? I want to also remember that he, on this earth, is the “first” among priests. And so, I ask of all those who adopt a critical stance those prayers at which the world laughs, but which guide, in secret, the destiny of the Church and the whole world.
[Original version: Italian. Rorate translation by Fr. Richard Cipolla.]