Pope Francis. Photo/pixabay

Bergoglio, Ratzinger, and Wojtyla are Accompanying Us to Rediscover the Heart of Peter

A reflection on the past three Popes. "... three theological virtues: the hope of John Paul II, the faith of Benedict XVI, and the charity of Francis... "

On my Facebook page, I pasted a cover made of photos of the three last popes. The person who thought of it indicated each pope with one of the three theological virtues: the hope of John Paul II, the faith of Benedict XVI, and the charity of Francis. This helped me understand more what I had in mind the evening of the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. I was broadcasting live, in the emotion and chaos of what had happened and of what I was doing, and watching the first images of the new Peter, realizing what a “break” he was from the preceding pope and also from a good part of recent Church history. And yet, I already felt the injustice of believing that Benedict XVI was an “incompetent” pope, as many whispered or affirmed openly in these days. I already had in mind the error of believing that there can be a history of the good Church and a history of the bad one, and that the question can be miserably reduced to an unexpected victory of the progressives against the conservatives. Therefore, I was looking for the continuity I felt in my bones, but couldn’t get clear in my head.

The man on the lakeshore. The first thing that came to mind is that there would not be Bergoglio today without having had Ratzinger and Wojtyla yesterday. In the last decades, we have seen, but perhaps not realized clearly, a reform of the papacy that began with John Paul II, continued with Benedict XVI, and has just pulled into port with Francis, that has progressively stripped the figure of Peter of the incrustations of power, pushing it back toward the image of the fisherman of Galilee, of Peter who was a poor wretch, whose only greatness lay in having totally entrusted his human misery to the merciful embrace of the extraordinary man he met on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. This was the first thought that came to mind.

Certainly, I thought back to the images of Benedict XVI wrapped in the sumptuous vestments hurriedly pulled out of the Vatican basements, in which Ratzinger disappeared, inducing one to believe more in his discomfort than in his conviction. We all looked at him, asking ourselves why he should have such a “packaging” of his meekness and humility. I thought of the human difference from his predecessor, the difference in character, and that evening already that of his successor. For that matter, after Wojtyla, everyone looked for a new Wojtyla, as if there were no place in the Church for different holinesses, which instead is the true hope for each of us. Everyone seemed to think it impossible to be “giants” if one lacked the physical aspect or the ability with mass media to capture crowds because of the enormity of one’s stature.

And yet Benedict, under siege in the Church herself by the evil and ambition of men, not only resisted, but was a solid rock of the Christian faith. I have in mind not only what he said throughout his pontificate, but also what he did, renouncing power according to the meaning most familiar to us, and choosing instead service, the good of the Church that he loves more than himself, sending everyone home with a lesson that has the fragrance of sacrifice, of martyrdom.

I have in mind what he said in his last audience: the Church does not belong to the cardinals and the popes. It belongs to Jesus Christ alone, and is made up of men and women who live in and of the Body of Christ. That Benedict XVI was a great pope was said by then-Cardinal Bergoglio, commenting from Buenos Aires on his withdrawal from the papacy.

Quo vadis, Domine?” Thus, Benedict cleared the path for Francis, the one already blazed by John Paul. I thought of this during another live broadcast as I watched the image of the white helicopter going toward Castel Gandolfo, following the via Appia, the road of the martyrs of the faith. The same road of quo vadis, traveled by Peter who was fleeing Rome to avoid persecution, until he met Jesus Christ coming from the opposite direction. “Quo vadis, Domine?” asked the Apostle. “I am going to Rome to face the martyrdom you are fleeing,” responded Christ.

In that broadcast, I recounted this episode, but I realized that it could have seemed that I inferred that Benedict was fleeing. Instead, I understood that it was precisely the opposite. For Benedict XVI, it was the acceptance of his personal martyrdom, even that of humiliation and incomprehension, so that Peter could return to Rome. Accustomed as we are to reason in black and white, all of us, not just Catholics, lose the ability to recognize the surprising and unexpected colors of the spring that emerged in the Church with the sacrifice of Peter.

Now we look at Francis and already we see nothing else. I don’t want to judge others’ feelings and opinions. When I heard Francis’ first words, I thought, “He never pronounced the word ‘pope’–he insists on ‘bishop.’ This is quite a pickle! This is a real break, a questioning of the papacy, which, beyond human shortcomings, has been the protector of the freedom of the Catholic Church, as also seen in the vicissitudes of the Orthodox Churches. And then there is the very name Francis, distorted to an Irenist and animal-rights icon. And the Church of the poor, the reason for so much violent quarreling in the post-Council years.” And so on and so forth.

In talk shows, the judges of our television time, I hear the “conservatives” tell the “victorious progressives” that they’ll soon stop laughing together with the secular enemies of the Church, lauded today, when they realize that Francis will not yield on abortion and on all those scabrous themes in the relationship with the contemporary world. As if it were only a question of time and all would work out according to our categories (both progressives and conservatives are together on this) and we would finally return to our reassuring mental daily grind. But I wonder, would the Holy Spirit have provoked all this earthquake, Benedict’s withdrawal and the arrival of Francis, to make us return to floating on our everyday marsh waters? I believe in the springtime of the Church, guided by her popes toward new, clean waters. I find nothing bad, in fact I am happily amazed, to see that people far from the Church or her enemies can be struck by the appearance, once again, of a man who loves Jesus Christ. Hasn’t it been this way ever since the beginning?

Marina Ricci