He ‘read’ history in God’s perspective

The reflections of one of the closest collaborators of John Paul II on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to papacy.
During his pontificate John Paul II spent a lot of time outside the Vatican, making pilgrimages to the local Churches all over the world. The Pope said openly that he could make his apostolic visits because he had trustworthy and dedicated collaborators in the Vatican and in his Roman diocese, people like Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who was his Vicar General for the Eternal City and was the head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference. These two functions are of unique significance, considering the fact that the Pope is the Bishop of Rome and the Primate of Italy. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the election of Cardinal Wojtyla to the Holy See I made an interview with the retired Vicar General of Rome.

Wlodzimierz Redzioch: – The year 1978 is called ‘year of three popes’. Within several months we witnessed important and dramatic events: the death of Paul VI, the election and death of John Paul I and the next conclave that elected a foreigner, the first within four centuries. How did you receive the news of the election of the Archbishop of Krakow to the Apostolic See?

Cardinal Camillo Ruini: – In 1978 I was a priest in the Italian Diocese of Reggio Emilia. On the evening of 16 October, when I returned home I noticed that the television set in the reception was on and I learnt about the election of the new Pope on television. I was astonished. At first, I did not realise who Cardinal Wojtyla was. Only then I understood that they meant the Archbishop of Krakow. Soon joy replaced my initial astonishment. I was glad because of two things: the Pope came from Poland, which was a positive and meaningful fact and at last the tradition to elect an Italian pope was broken. My heart opened when I heard his decisive voice at the beginning of his pontificate (although his Italian was not quite correct then). I had the impression that we dealt with a fascinating man who could give witness to his faith.

– When you first met John Paul II what were your impressions?

– For the first time I met the Holy Father in the autumn of 1984. I was one of the vice-presidents of the committee that was preparing the congress of the Italian Church in Loreto. John Paul II ascribed a big significance to that congress and he wanted to see me. I was invited to dine with him. I was struck how attentive the Pope was and what precise questions he asked. The Holy Father knew the situation of the Italian Church very well. I shared his convictions about the needs of Italy and its Church. I was impressed by his simplicity and natural relationship that was established between us.

– Your Eminence followed the first years of the pontificate of John Paul II from the perspective of one Italian diocese. What did people think about the non-Italian Pope at first?

– The foreign Pope was not a problem for the Italians – they are not nationalists and in any case not chauvinists. It is true that someone tried to stress the fact that the Pope came from another world and thus he could not understand our problems well. Moreover, some thought that from the ecclesiastical point of view Vatican Council II did not exert sufficient influence on Eastern Europe, i.e. behind the Iron Curtain. These ideas circulated only in some media and ecclesiastical environments. Generally speaking, people liked the Pope because he made them feel confident and optimistic and he transmitted deep and authentic faith.

– In 1991, John Paul II called you to the Eternal City and entrusted you with the responsible office of his Vicar General for the diocese of Rome. The relationships between the popes and Rome are of special character since the Pope presides over the Catholic Church as the Bishop of Rome. How would you characterise the attitude of John Paul II towards Rome and its inhabitants?

– The Pope was aware of the significance of Rome and its universal character, which is parallel to the universality of the pontificate of the Bishop of Rome. How many times, including private conversations, did he emphasize that he was the highest shepherd of the universal Church, the Pope, because he was the Bishop of Rome. This title ‘Bishop of Rome’ made his mission universal. Therefore, the attitude of the Holy Father towards Rome was not something additional, secondary but it was the core of his pontificate. Besides, John Paul II had an authentic love for Rome. In his book ‘Testimony’ Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz revealed that every evening before going to bed the Pope blessed his city. I would like to add that the Holy Father attached great importance to the matters of Rome. Suffice to mention his pastoral visits to the Roman parishes and the contacts he maintained with the local priests, seminarians, intellectualists, students as well as the sick and the poor.

– For many years you were responsible for the Church in Italy, firstly as a secretary and then the President of the Bishops’ Conference. You could follow the mission of the Pope in your country from that perspective. What was the meaning of the pontificate of John Paul II for the Italian Church?

– The relationships between the Pope and the Italians were very profound. He realised that as the Bishop of Rome he was the Primate of Italy and he wanted to fulfil this role as ‘a servant of God’s servants.’ The Pope thought that the Italian Church was not aware enough of her great richness, her potentials and consequently, her responsibility. This is confirmed in the letter of 1994 directed to the Italian bishops, concerning the responsibilities of the Italian Catholics. The Pope wrote that in Europe the Italians were entrusted with a great task of preserving and enriching the big treasure of faith and culture, which was brought to Rome by the Apostles Peter and Paul. The Holy Father claimed, often quoting President Pertini with whom he had a relationship of true friendship, that the Italian priests did not appreciate enough the importance of the Church in Italy and because of her deep roots the Italian Church carried special responsibility in Europe and in the world.

– The critics and enemies of John Paul II called him ‘Polish Pope’ to stress his alleged nationalism and provincialism. How did you see John Paul II’s love for his earthy homeland?

– How many times did John Paul II tell me the history of his homeland, which he knew well, while dining! In order to understand his feelings to his homeland one should remember all that he said, for example in the headquarters of the United Nations, about nation and international community understood as a family of nations. For the Pope nation was not something closed in itself and antagonistic towards other nations but something original and fundamental, cultural community that forms people, families and the whole civilisation. That’s why the concept of nation was something positive although he was fully aware of the existing risk and perversions of nationalism. The Pope never mixed nationalism and healthy national feelings. He did not think that the concept of nation was out of date and should be abolished. We all know well how John Paul II fought for Europe but he thought that one could not speak about our continent disregarding its nations. Every nation has its own characteristics and consequently, has a role to fulfil. John Paul II’s love for Poland did not prevent him from loving all people. If anyone did a lot for the whole world, especially for the poorest countries, it was Karol Wojtyla.

– Unfortunately many environments, including the ecclesiastical ones, see nations as an obstacle to build a cohesive European Union. Should we not, especially at the present stage of EU’s evolution, remind people of the ideas of John Paul II concerning Europe?

– The European Union too often tries to appropriate the competences of nations – this is a serious threat. If we want to build Europe well we must do it on the basis of subsidiarity. And this means that Europe should only deal with what the nations cannot do better themselves. Imposing ‘European’ standards concerning social and family life is a wrong idea. It is obvious that the lifestyle and mentality of Poles, Spaniards or Scandinavians are very different and ignoring these differences only leads to unnecessary tensions.

– What is the role of the European Union then?

– The European Union should deal first of all with big economic problems, defence and foreign politics because common actions in these fields can be effective.

– You called John Paul II ‘a man of God’. What does it mean?

– This term has two dimensions. Someone is ‘a man of God’ because God is the Lord of this man, in some way God has taken him as his possession and made him his own. Secondly, Karol Wojtyla was ‘a man of God’ since God was at the centre of his life. The significant thing is that the Pope regarded Holy Mass as the main point of every day. This testifies best to his attitude towards God. As far as big problems in the international scene are concerned one was struck that the Pope ‘read’ history in God’s perspective. Suffice to remind you of his encyclical ‘Centesimus annus.’ The interesting thing is that he looked at the current and daily matters from this perspective. That’s why for the Pope prayer and action were closely connected – this man lived in the presence of God and always tried to do his will.

– The pontificate of John Paul II was one of the longest in the history of the Church. Therefore, I do realise that it is not an easy thing to make its analysis. However, can you say in a synthetic way what was the meaning of this pontificate for the Church and for the world?

– The pontificate of John Paul II was of great significance. We all remember his contribution to the fall of the Iron Curtain. However, I think that the most important thing is what the Pope did to rebuild confidence in the Church and her mission, for restoring dignity and struggling for the rights of the poor nations as well as unborn children. The key to understand his pontificate is the relationship between John Paul II and God, which exerted influence on his pastoral activities and historical events. The Holy Father was deeply convinced that secularisation was not an inevitable and irreversible fact – the world and history will not necessarily go away from God. When I met him in 1984 he was already convinced that to a certain extent the world began a new phase of history and that the strongest wave of secularisation was over. This fundamental conviction was enclosed in his shout ‘Do not be afraid!’

"Niedziela" 42/2008

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl