By Charles Avila, Chairman of the Lay Society of Saint Arnold Janssen
Almost nine years ago (February 25, 2014) I wrote “THE GARDENER’S TALE OF THE CONDOMINIUM PAPACY.” [https://thegardenerstales.com/?p=769]
Among other things I said:
Six hundred to seven hundred years from now it is quite likely that the student of Church history will be reading only two lines about our times: one will concern the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council – obviously – and the second will be about something much less obvious, namely, the phenomenon of the Condominium Papacy, which had more chances than any to make a home run of implementing Vatican II.
The secular student is more familiar with the phenomenon of the Triumvirate in the late Roman Empire. “Triumvirate” meant three men in a coalition dictatorship inevitably ending up in collision with each other.
There was, for instance, Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus and Pompey. They were each strong and powerful. They also knew that they needed each other to get what they wanted. And they did not like one another.
Two of them were hostile to each other, ever since the revolt of Spartacus; another two allied themselves only tenuously through marriage.
But the wonder is that these two groups of three men agreed to share power and govern the growing Roman Empire. In the end, of course, given the reality of struggle, one of the three who agreed to equal power-sharing would end up “more equal” than the other two.
So, I asked in my blog nine years ago: Is there anything like this in the Roman Papacy? Pope Francis had earlier quipped: “The last time there were two or three popes, they didn’t talk among themselves and they fought over who was the true pope!”
Was there really such a time in Church history? Smiling Pope Francis was not kidding. Quite early on, there were antipopes —men who claimed to be pope but who in fact were not.
The most famous period, however, during which there were popes and antipopes, is called the time of “The Great Schism,” when there were at first two claimants of papal authority and then a third, reigning between the years 1378 and 1417. Each person claiming to be pope seemed to have a valid argument.
In those years, Popes resided in Avignon, France – close to the comforts of Versailles-type living. Only after 70 years did they return to Rome where Roman residents wanted to make sure Peter’s successors stayed put in Rome. And so, one time, a Roman mob got a Pope “elected” who was later on rejected by the cardinals. Roman “People Power” was so eager to have a Roman resident elected Pope so that he would stay in Rome, and they did so by hook or by crook. But the cardinals would have none of it and proceeded to elect another one.
The appearance of two popes became a confusing matter. Different countries aligned themselves with the different popes. Even very holy people who were later canonized saints aligned themselves with opposite papal claimants.
But, of course, theologians and historians alike recognize only one line of claimants to the papal seat, and that is the line starting with Urban VI and ending with Gregory XII. There were those who claimed to be pope but in fact they were not. Even if it was confusing and there were countries and saints who disagreed, still there was only one authentic pope at any given time.
Till earlier today there were two, and the two were one. Both were authentic: one active, the other contemplative. One was reigning and ruling, the other just praying and praying. Both resided in the Vatican grounds. And at first they saw each other and prayed together often. There had never been anything like this before in the two-thousand-year history of the Roman church – a condominium papacy of His Holiness, Pope Francis, and His Holiness, Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI (who passed on only a few hours ago as I write this).
Pope Francis said lately that having Pope Benedict living in the Vatican was “like having a grandfather – a wise grandfather – living at home”. What exactly did he mean by this? You normally don’t ask your grandfather advice on every detail of your life and work. But you go to him often enough for the main lines, the strategic thrusts, the lessons learned out of so many years of experience, and maybe, just maybe, an advice or two not only on what and wherefore but, as well, on who and why not.
The very first encyclical letter issued in the realm of Pope Francis, “Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith),” was an explicitly collaborative work with Pope-Emeritus Benedict. Pope Francis wrote (Paragraph 7): “Benedict XVI …himself had almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith. For this I am deeply grateful to him, and as his brother in Christ I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own.”
It was on February 10th, 2013 that Pope Benedict shocked the world with his calm Declaratio at a consistory for three canonizations when he said: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.
“However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the Barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.
“For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.”
On first reading the declaration, I thought: “Benedict must be experiencing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. He had seen how the Parkinson’s disease of his predecessor made the man suffer so much, and made him, then Cardinal Ratzinger, virtual ‘pope’ for many years because of that sickness of his boss and his closeness to him. If that was so with Parkinson’s, then the situation was going to be even worse with Alzheimer’s. He was not going to have the church he loved so much led by a man literally out of his mind. What courage, what unselfishness, what grace!” My speculation, however, found no evidence except to the contrary. It had been just that – speculative.
Benedict’s decision was unexpected because Popes stay on in office till they breathe their last. It was unprecedented, except, perhaps, if you take into account the decision of Pope Gregory XII six hundred years ago, in 1415; he did so in order to end the Western Schism.
Much earlier and more significantly, 720 years ago, a Pope Celestine also resigned after barely six months in office and after having declared in one final decree the Pope’s right of resignation – a declaration still extant today. Interestingly enough, our Pope Benedict it was who, to mark the 800th anniversary of Celestine’s birth, proclaimed the Celestine year from 28 August 2009 through 29 August 2010.
Benedict XVI visited the Sulmona Cathedral, near Aquila, on 4 July 2010 as part of his observance of the Celestine year and prayed before the altar that had Celestine’s remains – an altar consecrated by Celestine on 10 October 1294. After his renunciation of the papacy Celestine switched back to contemplative mode, but was imprisoned by his successor to prevent followers from making him an antipope.
On hindsight, it seems that from that time on, July 2010, Pope Benedict had become more and more deeply in tune with the action of his predecessor of more than 700 years before.
For one thing, Benedict absolutely denied that he had been visited by an apparition or had heard God’s voice. He said rather that he had undergone a “mystical experience” during which God had inspired in him an “absolute desire” to dedicate his life to prayer rather than push on as pope. “I have had to recognize my incapacity… I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering…”
Benedict said this mystical experience had lasted months, building his desire to create a direct and exclusive relationship with God. Shortly after witnessing the “charisma” of Pope Francis, his successor, Benedict said he understood to a greater extent how his stepping aside was, indeed, the “will of God”.
Indeed and in fact, Pope Francis was quite a choice. He may have shared 100% the content of doctrines upheld by Pope Emeritus Benedict but his style was so entirely different. And “style makes the man!” In a very short time he landed on the cover of most important publications in the world and became the most talked-about human being on the planet. And to think that a little more than a year before his election he was virtually unknown!
It is true that his name made the rounds of papabili or ‘popeables’ early on. Had not veteran cardinals cast ballots for him in the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict XVI? They now saw a chance to float his candidacy again. One could view this group as a coalition of cardinals from Latin America, Africa and Europe who regarded him as a consummate outsider, one who never worked in the Roman Curia, and was critical of Rome’s apparent disconnect with far-flung dioceses. But could they get him the so-called Ratzingerian bloc to ensure the 77 votes needed to become pope?
Was there really such a bloc? Many Monday morning quarterback analysts mused that if there were such a bloc, and it proved decisive, it had to be that its members found a way to consult the resigned Pope for guidance, and the latter gave his blessing… maybe. Or surely?
On March 7th, Bergoglio’s four minutes of sharing made just about everyone perk up. The politics of the Holy Spirit descended on the cardinal-electors, if one could be permitted an irreverent interpretation. Bergoglio took out his sheet of white paper with bullet-pointed notes written in tiny tight script in his native Spanish. However he delivered it in Italian, probably to make sure he communicated quite clearly with a majority of voting-age cardinals whose native tongue was that – Italian. Although he hailed from the down-under part of South America, Jorge Bergoglio was of solid Italian stock and could parla l’Italiano like a native.
The main points of that four-minute spiel are now well-known.
The leaders of the Catholic Church, our very selves, Cardinal Bergoglio warned, had become too focused on its inner life. The church was navel-gazing. The church was too self-referential.
“When the church is self-referential,” he said, “inadvertently, she believes she has her own light; she ceases to be the mysterium lunae [mystery of the moon] and gives way to that very serious evil, spiritual worldliness.”
Roman Catholicism, he said, needed to shift its focus outward, to the world beyond Vatican City walls, to the outside. The new pope “must be a man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the church to go out to the existential peripheries that helps her to be the fruitful mother, who gains life from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.” The word he used, periferia in Italian, literally translates into “the periphery” or “the edge.” But to Italian ears, periferia is also a term loaded with heavy socioeconomic connotations. It is on the periphery of Italian cities, and most European ones, that the working-class poor live, many of them immigrants.
The core mission of the church wasn’t self-examination, the cardinal said. It was getting in touch with the everyday problems of a global flock, most of whom were battling poverty and the indignities of socioeconomic injustice.
Many cardinals promptly asked Bergoglio for the notes of his address. For days they had heard speeches about “new evangelization,” a term from past popes that many cardinals used to honour their memory while disagreeing over what it meant. Suddenly, they were hearing someone speak about justice and human dignity in simple, clear, refreshing tones.
What many thought Cardinal Bergoglio was offering the church—after a decade of struggling to overcome the sexual-abuse crisis and years of internal bickering over issues like the liturgy—was a new narrative. He was telling a story of modern Catholicism that focused less on its complex inner workings and more on its outreach to those most in need.
By Sunday, March 10, two days before the start of the conclave, a new narrative took hold among the cardinals. Consequently, Cardinal Bergoglio had very quickly become top contender.
In Latin America where he was quite popular, the Cardinal was not without serious critics. He was known to be close to Benedict XVI, having graciously bowed out and stepped down as candidate for Pope in 2005, deferring to Cardinal Ratzinger.
In the years of open defiance of dictatorships, Bergoglio was controversial and was alleged to have provoked a severe rift in the Society of Jesus between priests who were fighting the dictatorship’s gross violations of basic human rights and those, old and young, who followed his policy of distancing the clergy from “politics.” To him, politics in that sense was more a challenge for the laity than for the clergy. There had to be a distinction of roles. The role of the clergy was to form the laity and the role of the laity was to transform the world.
He surely never took a back seat in pastoral ministries to the poor, visiting and caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, burying the dead, and upholding these as central Christian mission (Matt. 25). But he cautioned the Jesuits to reject any false theology that used the scriptures to favor partisan politics of the left or of the right. He remained a Jesuit (or so he thought) without being identified with liberation theology and despite a tolerant attitude he had towards the Opus Dei, which allegedly spawned the likes of the Argentine dictator, General Videla.
It could really be said that Bergoglio was not one for “class struggle” – whether it be the struggle of the poor against the rich or of the rich against the poor. He preferred to sidestep ideological positioning by grounding his message in a call to model the modern church on the humility of its origins. Many in Latin America who were unabashedly Marxist in their social analysis found him as one who refused to bite the bullet.
As Pope writing his second encyclical, Francis would find occasion to reiterate his line of caution against “diagnostic overload” whether of the Marxist or the value-free clinical capitalist style. He always preferred simply to “exhort all communities to an ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times”.
And again in this second encyclical in the first year of his reign, characterizing the condominium papacy, Pope Francis expressly stated, not to the surprise of many: “I never tire of repeating those words of Pope Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’”
The Condominium Papacy was for real, but subject to the mortal bodies of the two popes. The tasks got bigger and more complex within and outside: reformation of church structures, church finances, sex scandals; sharing the Good News without proselytizing, working miracles in a world of wounded humans, sick, enslaved, oppressed – a mad species of suicidal tendencies. It did take the compleat insider and the consummate outsider together in a Condominium Papacy to shepherd the Twenty-First Century flock of Jesus, the Christ.
With the passage of the years, howsoever few, pictures of His Holiness, Pope Francis and His Holiness, Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI, diminished in frequency. Whose body was weaker was a question often asked. Then last week Pope Francis suddenly made an announcement preparing the world for the final stage. Some stared more and stared again until they saw the obvious. For it is often invisible to the eye. Today the last day of 2022, the “German shepherd” barked his last. Though hardly heard, the word would go around the world faster than sound. A unique papacy has come to an end. FINIS.
————****The very worldly “Wall Street Journal” had a very good sum-up through authors Stacy Meichtry and Alessandra Galloni