Pope John Paul II and the Church

By Peter Hebblethwaite | Go to book overview

9
John Paul's 'renewal' engulfs 'aggiornamento'

( November 16, 1979) A summit meeting of cardinals -- an unprecedented event in modern times except on the death of a pope -- took place Nov. 5-9. For juridical reasons, it was not called a "consistory." Instead it was simply known as a "meeting" or a "plenary assembly," and its rules were devised ad hoc. But it took the form of the pre-conclave congregations of last year: reports followed by questions and discussions.

Life was imitating literature, once again. In Morris West The Shoes of the Fisherman, the Russian-born Pope Kiril summons the cardinals to Rome to assess his first year as pope. That is not quite what happened, and Vaticanologists who wrote that "the pope is submitting himself to the judgment of his electors" were wide of the mark.

John Paul II put it rather differently. "You elected me," he said in effect, "and now you have the task of sustaining me. You wanted a pastor and a bishop, and I have done my best to be that, and now you must help me with the administration."

But it all started rather badly on the evening of Nov. 5. There was the touch of farce which seems inseparable from Roman events. All day long it had been said that the pope's inaugural speech would not be released to the press. A strictly selected pool of 12 journalists was allowed into the synod hall at 5 p.m. to observe their eminences arrive, recite the adsumus, and then sit down. At that point the reporters departed.

By 8 o'clock that same evening the pope's speech was available, but only to the zealous who were still on the phone. The next day, a Vatican spokesman explained what had happened: "It was never intended to make the pope's speech available, but when the cardinals heard it, they urged the pope to publish it for the good of the church." I put this remark to the four French cardinals on Wednesday, and it was evidently the first they had heard of it. They just about managed to keep straight faces.

An Asian cardinal told me: "Those of us from the Third World find the secrecy very difficult. What can we say when our people at

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