TWO PRIESTS, TWO POPES, HALF A CENTURY APART
EUGENE CULLEN KENNEDY
Anyone who was in the crowd that packed
to hear Kung, whose book on the Church and Reform, had ignited the imagination
of Catholics as it revealed the possibilities of the Council that was then in
session, will recall the electrical charge that exploded like a flash bulb in
the crowd’s response to his presentation.
Prominent layman Dan Herr had introduced him and said later that the
wave of enthusiasm that swept up from the crowd convinced him that the Church
was really ready for change.
Kung received at least half of the back of the ecclesiastical hand that has slapped Father Schuller for his prophet’s call to re-invigorate the Church by returning to the work of the Council in which Kung had played such an important role. Kung received an interdict from the Catholic University of America but an honorary degree from
. One of the first actions taken by Pope John
Paul II was to decree that Kung could no longer be regarded as a Catholic
theologian at the St. Louis University where, even
stripped of that credential, he has continued to be a leader in Church reform
and renewal. University
Father Schuller has been denied permission to speak in
or schools by
bishops who, much as in Kung’s day, do not want to fail to ban a speaker or
silence a theologian if that looks like the pope’s wishes. Father Schuller enters the New Inquisition
Sweepstakes not riding a sleek thoroughbred bearing theological colors but on
the clerical Budweiser workhorse of hierarchical indenture, He has worked as a Church official and knows
that its stable of swayback horses desperately needs to be cleaned out or
burned down so that the Church can enter fully into the only race that counts,
the human race. Catholic
You won’t find irony as rich as that associated with the punishment he received from the Austrian hierarchy. They told him that he was no longer a monsignor, a title out of medieval court life, the loss of which turns out to be a tribute to Schuller who is committed to bringing the Church as a Servant to humanity in the 21st century. Schuller is traveling on the energy generated by Kung and the reformers of Vatican II, urging people and bishops to commit themselves to the evangelization urged by that Council rather than the evangelization, a return to the middle ages and monsignors, urged as a new “interpretation” of Vatican II by those partners in retro-theology and Church discipline, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
If Schuller and Kung, following the same knight’s calling to retrieve the Holy Grail, might, in a sense, have been separated at birth, so, too, the Popes, John XXIII and Francis, separated by the same half century, nonetheless possess the same master pastoral gene. John XXIII expressed it in his bringing his country roots with him into the
breaking centuries of traditions, such as the pope’s eating alone, and, when
told that the workers would not come near him when he walked in the papal
gardens, asked, “Why not, I won’t harm them?”
He disdained the official papal footwear and had a pair of familiar
farmer’s boots modified for his many ambles around the Vatican Vatican and occasionally into itself.
He laughed when he was told that the English journalists called him
“Johnny Walker.” Rome
Pope Francis seems to many nervous Catholics too good to be true and they worry that this man who, in his large-hearted simplicity and common sense, may somehow turn out to be different than he has seemed, less like John in the long run and more like Benedict. Any pope who can say that having the previous pope around is like having grandpa nearby does not seem likely to lose the humanity that makes him so attractive.
When John XXIII was pope and had broken down barriers by the kind of embrace that he gave the delegation of Jewish officials, saying, “I am Joseph and you are my brothers,” prompted philosopher Hannah Arendt, who had noted his work to save Jews during the war, to write, :We have a Christian sitting on the throne of Peter.”
She would write the same thing if she heard of Pope Francis’s pastoral response when, on his plane returning from World Youth Day in Rio, he was asked about homosexuals and he answered, obviously from his heart, of their human goodness, of our need to support rather than censure them, and, who was he to judge them is they were seeking God in their own way?
The wonderful thing about these words about homosexuals is that nobody – no speechwriter, advisor, or P.R. expert, much less a curial official or a screenwriter – could have imagined the saving simplicity of Francis’s profoundly Christian words. He speaks as John XXIII did when aked why he called Vatican II into session. He did not respond by saying that the Church had to tighten up but that it had to open up, and his purpose was not to save monsignors or other trappings of the past, but that he did it for the people, “so that the human sojourn on earth might be less sad.” That, of course, is why Francis urges bishops and priests to get out of the institution and into the midst of their people. The Church is indeed to make the journey of all people less sad.
So blessed are we that we have in Father Schuller a priest who calls us back to Vatican II much as Hans Kung had called us to it half a century ago. Francis stands as unself-consciously as a pastoral pope as John XXIII did in that same era. Father Schuller is not just calling for healthy reforms, he is bringing back, as is Pope Francis, the excitement that filled the Church at the time of Vatican II. While Benedict XVI worked hard to bring us back to the 19th century of
I, Francis is gently
bidding us to rediscover the riches of that Council so that we may serve the
world better, so that, in fact, we may join in making the “human sojourn on earth less sad.” Vatican