A remarkable and moving relationship of the popes
Cardinal Stanislaw Nagy, SCJ
It embraces a possibility of unexpected initiatives of the present Pope in the future. And it contains an honest and friendly characteristic of the paths of Joseph Ratzinger and Karol Wojtyla, later John Paul II, first as cardinals and then as cardinal-pope. This picture edifies us by the humility and respect, which the German Cardinal had for the Polish Pope. We can emphasise other aspects of this epoch-making event, which is the interview in question. It seems we should pay special attention to the fragment of the interview in which Benedict XVI speaks about mutual relationships of faith that were between Pope John Paul II and him for 23 years, when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and especially during the illness of John Paul II and his death. We should also mention the moving words about the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as the Successor of John Paul II, with the heart-breaking thread of the deep relationship with his Predecessor. I wrote about that relationship in 'Niedziela' after Benedict XVI's election, referring to his first speech the day after the election, at the Mass he celebrated in the Sistine Chapel on 20 April 2005. In the first part of his homily, apart from speaking about the greatness of succession to St Peter and the context the elected Successor to St Peter had to take over the mission, he included a heart-breaking thread of that unique relationship he experienced with John Paul II who had just passed away. That relationship was so astonishing that it was intriguing in its content. Therefore, it was good that the question concerning the authentic sense of those moving words was asked in the unique interview.
Relationships with the predecessor
Benedict XVI did not evade the answer to the concrete heart-breaking question of Fr Andrzej Majewski, SJ (good for him!), the second part of which contained 'Do you still feel the presence of John Paul II? And if so, in what way?' Benedict XVI began his answer with a decisive confirmation 'Of course, I do!'
After this solemn and brief introduction there follows a detailed analysis of the first answer. This introduction is a solemn observation, 'a rich legacy, which has not been assimilated yet. My fundamental mission is not to promulgate new documents but rather to help assimilate the existing ones because they constitute an extremely rich treasure - they are authentic interpretation of Vatican Council II'.
And before that he mentioned 14 important encyclicals, which he as cardinal commented on with a profound feeling, and gave a penetrating outline of the doctrinal activities of the late Pope. There are two basic conclusions. The first one is the extremely important fact of valorisation of the doctrinal output of John Paul II's pontificate. And this was needed because of certain distance of some theological centres towards the prestige and value of this output in deepened theological reflection. The second conclusion is of moral-psychological nature and is related to the person of Benedict XVI. It is summed up in the admiration, respect and humility of the Pope, outstanding Catholic theologian of the present epoch, for the personality and work of his great predecessor. Only a great man could have said those words, the man who, on the basis of his deep knowledge of the person and the process of development of that doctrinal output, tried to hide his greatness in the shadow of the authority of his great Predecessor, for whom he feels great respect and sincere gratitude.
An essential fragment of Benedict XVI's interview is his commentary on his famous words after the election, which were 'I seem to feel his strong hand clasping mine; I seem to see his smiling eyes and hear his words, at this moment addressed specifically to me, "Do not be afraid!" The Pope begins his comments by explaining how he understands closeness he has with his great Predecessor. 'John Paul II is close to me through his texts since I can see and hear him in them, and thus I can carry out a continuous dialogue with him. He continuously speaks through these words to me'.
Would it have been possible to comment on those words in a more deeper and convincing way 'I seem to see his smiling eyes and hear his words, at this moment addressed specifically to me, "Do not be afraid!" And we should add another fragment of that cordial phrase, which sounds, 'I know the origin of many texts, I remember talks we had over a certain text, and in this way I can continue talking to the Holy Father'. Therefore, a deep relationship through thoughts that one Pope put in ink and the other reconstructed while they were produced in writing. But it is not only this feature of the intellectual reflection that makes this wonderful relationship between the present Pope and the one who just passed away. It is completed by the next fragment of Benedict XVI's confidence, 'Naturally, that closeness through words is not limited to the text but is a contact with a person. Behind these texts I can feel the presence of the Pope himself, the man who passed away to the Lord but he is not distant'. And so as Benedict XVI said in his homily to the cardinals 'I seem to feel his strong hand clasping mine'. However, he would not be himself, i.e. astute theologian if he had not completed this heart-breaking observation, if he had not completed that spontaneous statement, giving a profound explanation, 'I feel more and more that if somebody passes away he gets even closer to us, and I feel that being close to Christ he is at the same time as close to me as I am close to the Lord'.
And he concludes meaningfully, 'So I am close to the Pope and he helps me come closer to Christ... I also ask him for his prayers, talking to him continuously and feeling the closeness in a new and very deep way'.
The above fragment needs no comments, and if it needs anything it should be the most sincere admiration, respect and silent joy that it was so and still is - half a year after that great passing way on 2 April 2005.