March 11, 2013, Monday — Alpha and Omega

“I am the alpha and the omega” (Koiné Greek: τὸ Α καὶ τὸ Ω) —the name of Jesus in the Book of Revelation (verses 1:8, 21:6, and 22:13).

“I said to my soul, be still,

and let the dark come upon you

Which shall be the darkness of God…

“Old men ought to be explorers

Here or there does not matter

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion

Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,

The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters

Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.”

—T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, East Coker

The Professor Who Became a General

“So you want to understand why Benedict resigned, and what will happen now,” my friend, an Italian woman whom I had not seen for a long time, asked me.

We had met by chance after Sunday evening Mass, at the entrance of the Church of the Holy Spirit, a few steps from the Vatican, in a light rain, and she had invited me to her home for a light dinner of leftovers. She asked her daughters to prepare something for us.

“Yes,” I said. “I have known him well, but I haven’t been able to come to a conclusion about what he did, and why. I really wish I could speak with him, to have him explain it all in his own words. I’m actually hoping I will still be able to talk to him, someday, after some time passes, maybe over a cup of tea in the Vatican Gardens…”

“I think he gave us the key himself, three years ago,” she said. “In his interview with Peter Seewald, when Seewald asked him whether he was at the end or the beginning of his pontificate, he replied ‘Both.’

“Both at the end, and at the beginning. I think that was the key. But only now can we begin to see what he really meant.

“Look,” she said. “He was a professor, all his life. And he was a professor as Pope. A German professor, with all that that implies. Orderly, precise, meticulous. But also profound, compelling, illuminating.

“But at the end of his life, he became a General, and he began the battle,” she said. “He is the Professor who became a General.”

She smiled, pleased with the expression she had created.

“So you really think he is carrying out a plan?” I asked.

Benedict’s Plan

“Of course!” she said. “You know him. Do you have any doubt? Ratzinger is one of the greatest Pope-theologians of all time. And he is a holy man. He prayed deeply before doing what he did. I am confident that he knew exactly what he was doing. In fact, I have never in my life seen such a huge act of faith in our Lord as his. He believes that it is the Lord who guides the Church.”

“Well,” I said, “I wondered if his opponents in the Curia, those who opposed his efforts to bring about the purification of the Church, the things that he spoke of so powerfully before his election in 2005, those who opposed his promulgation of Summorum Pontificum granting greater access to the old Mass, his decision to investigate Father Maciel, his attempts to reconcile with the Lefebvrists, had…”

“You are right,” she said. “They never forgave him for those things.”

“So,” I said, “then came the Vatileaks affair, and his decision to step down… It looked like the Curia, or some elements of the Curia, had won…”

She nodded.

“Look,” she said. “Most of the monsignors who work in the Curia are very good men. They have committed their lives to the Church and the Pope. They are human, of course, and the typical miseries of human life are not alien to them. But to characterize them as demons and to bandy-about phrases like ‘gay lobbies’ is to draw attention away from the real issue, which is theological. The-o-log-i-cal.”

“Well,” I said, “I agree. The battle is theological, Christological, ecclesiological, liturgical, anthropological — whether man is capable of encountering the divine…”

“Precisely,” she said. “It is whether the Church is a type of philanthropic organization, a human organization like any other, or a spiritual organism, Christ’s living mystical body. It is a battle over the nature and mission of the Church, whether the Church will evangelize and so transform and redeem the world, or whether the world will transform and secularize the Church. And in this battle, Ratzinger has become, and I am convinced of this, the General. I think we should call him that from now on.

“Regarding the decision to step down, I have the feeling,” she continued, “that Benedict finally realized that, in the Curia there were simply too many who needed to be changed. The secret report of the three cardinals revealed a series of things that did not work. The report recognized that there are many in the Curia who are very good, but also a good-sized group with… various problems.

“The Pope found himself in a dramatic situation when he found that they had put someone in his own house who stole his documents. This was disconcerting. Some Germans went to visit him, and the Pope said to them, ‘Think about it, he was giving me my medicine, too.’

“In other words, he felt there might even have been a threat to his own life…

“Then, on a number of occasions, he was asked to approve appointments and transfers which he was not certain about. This troubled him deeply.

“Then, he meditated, and prayed. And he made his plan. And what did he do? In a single blow, they are all gone, the heads of every office in the entire Curia. Now a younger man will be able to come in and, over the coming years, completely reform the Roman Curia. He couldn’t have been more brilliant.”

“So what is happening now?” I asked. “Who will be able to be elected to carry out this plan? Won’t there be an attempt to thwart Benedict’s plan?”

“They may try,” she said. “There will be the various lobbies and groups. One is the group around Cardinal Sodano — Re, Ruini, Sardi, Sandri — they are sometimes called “Sodane con Maciel” for “Sodale con Maciel” (“in solidarity with Maciel”). They resisted Scicluna’s exposure, on Ratzinger’s orders, of the activities of Maciel. By the way, do you know that Ratzinger held back the last Conclave, in 2005, for several days so that Scicluna, who was traveling in the United States, could take depositions on the case and bring them back to Rome before the opening of the Conclave, so that Ratzinger would have the evidence he needed?”

“Well, what you are saying coincides with what many have been telling me,” I said. “Not only in these past few days and weeks, but for years. But you are pulling it all together. Please continue…”

“Well,” she said, “then there is the group some here call ‘arsenico e vecchi merletti’ or ‘arsenic and old lace’ — the pious ones, generally liturgically conservative, including Piacenza, Guido Marini, and some Italian bishops, like Bagnasco and Moraglia.

“Then there are the ‘Bertoniani,’ the ones around Cardinal Bertone. Their common characteristic is their interest in ‘affari,’ doing business. This group includes Versaldi, Calcagno, De Paolis, and also Marco Simeon, the layman from Genoa.

“It was Sodano’s intent in 2005 to elect an old Pope who would have a brief pontificate, to systematize the chaos of the Curia left in the wake of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, and then pass away,” she said. “But Benedict was stronger than they expected, and he lived longer than they expected,” she continued. “So now we are in front of the choice: which direction?

“By stepping aside now, while still alive, Benedict has given the Church a chance to renew herself. But, the cardinals must take the opportunity. It is right in front of them. They simply have to reach out their hands and grasp it.”

“So who do you think they will choose?” I asked.

Three Days…

“You want to know who I think will win, or who I would like to win if I had my choice?”

“Both,” I said.

“Well, the Curia will propose one or two solutions, first Scherer, then someone else. But what the Church needs is someone who can unite Europe, North America and South America, and the sole solution is O’Malley. And you would be amazed at how much he is loved here in Italy. The Italians just love him. He reminds them of Padre Pio. He would be a fantastic choice for most Italians.

“There will be an effort made to elect Scola, and he also is a good man, but he doesn’t seem to me to be quite the right choice. I’m not sure whether the cardinals will unite in support of him. Even among the Italians there are a number of cardinals who are not enthusiastic about him. But if they choose an Italian, he is the most likely.”

“And then… your own favorite?”

She looked at me and her face broke into a big smile.


“Schoenborn?” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “Schoenborn.”

“Why?” I said.

“Because he has so many enemies!” she replied. “And because I know him personally. Sodano is against him, because Schoenborn criticized him. And Bertone too. Everyone is against him. But he is educated — he studied under Ratzinger, he was Ratzinger’s student — he is cultured, refined, eloquent, noble, handsome — especially handsome!”

“Look,” I said. “I know him too, and I like him as a person. He’s a friend. But his handling of that case…”

“The homsexual who was elected head of the parish council, and Schoenborn refused to remove him?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “That was troubling, no?”

“What do you know about the truth of that story? What does anyone know? Schoenborn met privately with the man. The man told Schoenborn that he does not present himself for communion. Schoenborn made the pastoral decision — he made a decision out of love. And that is Schoenborn’s greatest strength. He is not only humble, despite all of his gifts, but he has a great heart.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“He has been in this house, sitting in the same chair you are sitting in. And he hugged my son with such genuine love, that I understood…” She paused.


“I understood who he is. You see, our son is severely handicapped. And so he has become my ‘litmus test.’ So many clerics come into my home, and they hug my son, but not eagerly. When Schoenborn hugged him, he passed the test. There was genuine love. And I love him for that. And for the fact that everyone is against him!”

“But,” I said, “he visited Medjugorge…”

“And that’s another reason they don’t like him, because it hasn’t yet been approved,” she said. “But he had the courage to go, to see for himself, unlike so many others, who go there incognito, wanting to see but afraid to be seen. Not Schoenborn…”

“Hmmm,” I said. “So… how long do you think the Conclave will take?”

“I think it will be Thursday,” she said. “On the third day.”

“And so you believe that this unusual period in the history of the Church will end well?”

“Bob, the Catholic people, as seen in recent weeks, has much more faith and serenity than we realize,” she said. “And Catholics are very much aware that Benedict, in his preaching and his actions, and especially this last action, has laid the basis for a new springtime in the Church.”

“So for you, it’s Schoenborn?”

“I love him,” she said. “What can I say? Do you know that many people who look at him say he looks like a young John Paul II? And do you know that we have a saying here in Italy, ‘not two without three’?”

“Not two without three?”

“Central Europe: Cracow, Wojtyla; Bavaria, Ratzinger; and now the third: Vienna, Schoenborn. Three Popes in a row from the heart of Europe, the old heart of Catholicism.”

“Ah,” I said. “Ok. I see… Well, now it’s late. You’re tired, and so am I. Thanks for a lovely evening.”

“Let’s hope things go well,” she said. “Buona notte.


“Jesus’ repeated reference to the will of the Father shows the source of the community between Son and mother: the ‘fiat’ to the Father. The ‘fiat’ of the eternal Son is the very ground of his Incarnation; the ‘fiat’ of Mary is the ground of her divine motherhood. In this ‘fiat’ their hearts are united.” —Cardinal Christoph von Schoenborn, OP, on Mary’s role in the heart of the Church, from the book Mary, Heart of Theology, Theology of the Heart.

(to be continued)

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