There is a major defect in my intellectual make-up which it is time I admitted to: it’s not just that I don’t understand philosophy – any of it; I don’t even understand what it is about or why anyone would engage in it. I’m not proud of this: it is a pretty serious flaw for a priest, having had to spend two years studying philosophy before being let loose on theology. Mind you, having an aged Irish Jesuit explaining Being and Metaphysics in heavily accented Italian didn’t help, especially as the seminary in Rome hadn’t actually got round to teaching us Italian.
That, as you will not need to be reminded, was the day when Cardinal Ratzinger, blessed be he, was elected Pope as Benedict XVI, to be succeeded less than eight years later by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, blessed be he as well, who chose the unusual name of Francis. Two very different Popes, two very different outlooks on life, two very different ways of working.
But one well-known quotation from an English philosopher, A.N. Whitehead, has always intrigued me: “The… European philosophical tradition… consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Could something like this apply to other spheres of life, I wonder? And for about the last fifteen years, I have gradually understood that it can. More exactly, since 19 April 2005.
Since then, despite the best efforts of both men, the Church has faced the very real danger of schism between the supporters of Benedict and those of Francis. One of my bishop friends, whose identity I will protect, almost wept with joy when I asked him what his first impressions of Francis were: “Thank God! Thank God!” he exclaimed. Others are deeply and genuinely disturbed by what they see as a lack of clarity in papal teaching and modus operandi since Francis took over.
How does a poor priest who doesn’t understand philosophy maintain his equilibrium in such a climate, let alone try to advise others who are confused? Let me share with you my simple answer. I wish I could claim divine revelation for it, but it is nothing more than my own idea: all Popes for the next hundred years after 2005 have been and will be footnotes to John Paul II.
By that I don’t mean that Pope John Paul was perfect: he made mistakes of judgment, such as not confronting the abusive Fr. Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ. He also, I am reliably informed, rejected as inadequate a full English breakfast cooked by an adoring nun on his visit to England in 1982: a very serious error indeed.
What I mean is that he was, with all his human weaknesses, an extraordinary act of God, a one-off gift to the Church in our time on a par with other acts of God such as St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Divine Mercy or Saints Josephine Bakhita or Oscar Romero.
Nothing can undo the impact of his words and actions, because they were fundamentally not his, but God’s. All that subsequent popes can do for the next hundred years or so is to make minor adjustments to his work, correcting it a bit to right or to left as the Holy Spirit guides them. To paraphrase another great act of God, Teresa of Avila, there is nothing at all to be disturbed about.