There have been a number of providential turning points in the life of Pope Benedict XVI. His birth, of course, on Easter Saturday, 1927. Then there was the summer of 1945, when he was an American prisoner-of-war at age 18. And the moment in the mid-1950s when his dissertation was almost rejected, and it briefly seemed his academic career might be derailed. And the moment in 2002 when he handed in his resignation to Pope John Paul II, only to have it rejected. (If that resignation had been accepted, he might not have been as prominent a candidate to succeed John Paul II.) Now another ironic “turning point” in Joseph Ratzinger’s life has come to light. In 1997, it seems, he was expecting to end his Vatican career by becoming, not Pope, but the chief Librarian of the Vatican Library…
And now for a change of pace.
In my most recent letter, I talked about sex and Catholicism, about Christopher West’s version of John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” and Alice von Hildebrand’s critique of that teaching. Previous to that letter, I wondered aloud about the cathartic effect Benedict XVI’s profound intelligence and spiritual insights might have as he tries to engage the British people and its leaders in dialogue over the fundamental issues of human life during his visit Scotland and England in September (16-19).
Both of these subjects are subject to facile misinterpretations, and tend to arouse moral and religious passions.
In this letter I would like to “change gears” and deal with a curious, little known yet moving incident in the life of Joseph Ratzinger.
I recently received a warm note from Cardinal Raffaele Farina
, SDB (Society of Don Bosco), Prefect of the Vatican Library.
(The members of the Society of Don Bosco are commonly known as Salesians — followers of St. Francis de Sales — because the full name of their order is the “Congregation of St. Francis de Sales of St. John Bosco”),
The note recounts an encounter Cardinal Farina (photo) had with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) 13 years ago, in 1997, shortly after Farina became Prefect of the Vatican Library.
At that time, Farina had just succeeded Father Leonard Boyle, OP, my dear friend and mentor, as Prefect.
Unfortunately, Boyle had involved the Library in licensing deals which ended up in complicated lawsuits. Among the tasks Farina faced was sorting out those problems. Boyle, a brilliant paleographer and saintly man, was unexperienced in business, as he told me personally on several occasions. He died a few months after his dismissal; I believe it was due to a broken heart — to the shame he felt at his failure to obtain funds for his beloved Library through the licensing initiatives he entered into.
Boyle’s successor, Farina (another photo
), who will turn 77 in September, a month from now, is another wonderful man, scholarly, precise, kind.
Since 1997, he has been promoted, and currently serves as Archivist of the Vatican Secret Archives, Librarian of the Vatican Library (the one post above that of Prefect) and president of the Vatican School of Paleography.
Farina has given his entire life to the Church.
He entered the Salesians at the age of 16. He was ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Maurilio Fossati on July 1, 1958, under the reign of Pope Pius XII.
Farina studied Church history at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and received his doctorate in 1965. For the following three years, he worked at the German Foundation “Humboldt” in Freiburg and Bonn, so he knows German well.
From 1968 to 1972, he was Professor of Church History (covering the early Church to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D.) and of Methodology in the Theological Faculty of the Pontifical Salesian University. He then served as dean of the same faculty until 1974, then was rector of the Salesian University for two terms (1977-1983, 1992-1997).
So he has been an able administrator as well as a scholar.
He was named Prefect of the Vatican Library by Pope John Paul II on May 25, 1997. He received his episcopal consecration on the following December 16 from three cardinals, fellow Salesian Tarcisio Bertone (now the Secretary of State — this is why this period in Vatican history is sometimes termed the “Salesian period”; there are many Salesians in high Vatican posts) as principal consecrator, with James Stafford and Jean-Louis Tauran as co-consecrators, in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Ten years later, Farina was named Archivist of the Vatican Secret Archives and Librarian of the Vatican Library, on June 25, 2007. He replaced Cardinal Tauran, who was made President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (Tauran is another exceptionally learned and competent cardinal).
On the same date, Farina was given the rank of Archbishop.
Pope Benedict created him Cardinal-Deacon of S. Giovanni della Pigna in the consistory of November 24, 2007 — the last time cardinals were created (we are awaiting the next consistory, which is expected during the next 12 months).
Cardinal Farina will be eligible to participate in any future papal conclaves until he reaches the age of 80 on September 24, 2013.
Cardinal Farina currently sits on the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and is fluent in German, Spanish, Japanese, French, and English as well as Italian.
This is the note he sent to me, when I asked him if he had any memories to share of Pope Benedict XVI on the 5th anniversary of Benedict’s election (April 19, 2005).
Cardinal Ratzinger’s Secret Project to Become a Librarian
(Note: The following text is all by Cardinal Farina, translated from the original Italian.)
By Cardinal Raffaele Farina
It is well known that the Vatican Library bears the name Apostolic not by chance, since it is an institution regarded since its foundation as “The Pope’s Library,” his personal property, as it were.
This is what Benedict XVI said on the occasion of his visit to the Vatican Library and the Vatican Secret Archives on June 25, 2007.
At the end of his speech, addressed to the staff and management of the Library and the Archives, the Pope said: “I confess that, on reaching the age of 70 [in April 1997], I very much hoped that the beloved John Paul II would have allowed me to devote myself to the study of interesting documents and manuscripts which you preserve with such care, true masterpieces which help us study the history of humanity and Christianity. In His providential designs the Lord had other plans for me and now I’m here among you not as a keen student of ancient texts, but as a shepherd called on to encourage all believers to cooperate for the salvation of the world, each carrying out the mission God has assigned to him.”
It was the year 1997.
Cardinal Ratzinger had turned 70 on April 16.
On May 24, I was named Prefect of the Vatican Library, and as I began to carry out that task, I began to realize bit by bit realized the difficulties, economic and managerial in particular, which I would have to confront.
I took over the full management of the Library when my mandate as Rector of the Salesian University expired on July 12.
On that same day I learned of the sequestering under seal of the sales counters in the Galleries of the Library, which are, still today, part of the public area of the Vatican Museums, as well as of the laboratories and storage room of the Belser publishing company from Stuttgart, located in the Vatican Library in the rooms under my offices.
The Cardinal Librarian was at the time His Eminence Luigi Poggi; we knew already, during the month of July, that both of us would have the thankless task of dismissing as many as 39 of our employees.
In the midst of this worrisome situation, I received, among other things, an application for employment from a young woman from Munich in Bavaria who had worked as a trainee in our manuscript restoration laboratory.
She was in Rome and she called me almost every day, asking to be hired by the Library or at least to be accepted as an apprentice in our laboratory for a year or two.
I could not hire her, despite her excellent record of studies and her degree, obtained in Germany, not only on account of the firings which had been planned, but also because the Library had been put under the administration of an external commissioner (I was the external commissioner!) owing to the judicial proceedings connected to the aforesaid sequesterings, caused by the licences which my predecessor had incautiously granted to companies in California.
Tired by my refusals to hire her, polite though they were, this young woman got to the point of threatening me, saying that, unless I took into serious consideration her request to work in our Library, she would enter a convent.
As you might imagine, it came to me naturally and spontaneously to tell to her that I thought her decision was a blessing from God, for many reasons. So I deluded myself into believing that I had solved this problem.
In August 1997, I received a letter from Cardinal Ratzinger, who was on holiday in Munich.
In his letter, the cardinal recommended the young woman to me. He said she had paid him a visit, accompanied by her parents, to seek his help. He said that he was disposed to pay personally for a two-year scholarship for her as an intern.
I did not know what to do.
I consulted with Cardinal Poggi, who counseled me to wait for Cardinal Ratzinger to return to Rome and ask to see him.
That’s what I did.
On September 22, the cardinal received me for about 40 minutes.
Without waiting for me to tell him about my problem, he began to speak as if he already knew the reason of my visit.
He went on for half an hour talking about his work at the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, making reference, among other things, to a project on which I had worked on with him, the opening of the Archive of the Index to researchers.
He continued to speak until I, reflecting on what he was telling me, realized that he thought I knew a piece of news which was in fact then circulating within a restricted number in the Roman Curia: that, having turned 70 on April 16 that year, he had asked the Pope to relieve him of his burdensome task as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and to grant his wish to spend his last years in the Vatican as Cardinal Librarian.
In other words, he was asking me what I thought of his idea and what being Archivist and Librarian of the Holy Roman Church involved.
When I realized what the Pope-to-be really meant, I gave him to understand that I had already heard the news, and I expressed clearly how happy I and the whole staff of the Library were to have him join us.
Only when I took leave of him did I tell him about the problem of Elizabeth, the young woman who later, in fact, entered a convent.
(end of Farina’s text)
Of course, Cardinal Ratzinger did not become the Archivist and Librarian of Holy Roman Church.He remained at his post at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for another eight years, right up until he was elected Pope Benedict XVI.
But what if he had become the Librarian, as he apparently hoped?
Would Dominus Iesus (signed by Cardinal Ratzinger and published in August of 2000) not have been written?
Would the investigation of the Legionaries, undertaken at Ratzinger’s urging and under his direction at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, not have been pursued?
Had he become Librarian, would he have been elected Pope?
If he had not been elected Pope, in what ways would the last five years have been different?
Impossible questions to answer, but perhaps interesting to turn over in one’s mind on a warm summer’s day…
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“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” —Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, physicist and writer, 1623-1662)