The Year of Two Popes

How Joseph Ratzinger stepped into the shoes of John Paul II—and what it means for the Catholic Church

Avery Dulles took part in that mass, and what he remembers is how sick John Paul was. "The Gospel reading was the passage in which Jesus tells the apostles to 'feed my sheep,'" Dulles recalled, "and in his homily it was almost as if John Paul was asking us, 'Have I fed your sheep? Have I fed you?'" But even though he was reading from a prepared text, John Paul couldn't make it through the homily. He stumbled over words, gasped for air, and struggled to keep his eyes open and on the text. An aide had to help him by reading the very passage in which he asked the faithful to help the pope.

"He is in a bad way—we should pray for the pope," Ratzinger had told some German pilgrims a few weeks earlier. There was ample evidence of a turn for the worse. John Paul had faltered before a huge crowd during an open-air mass in Slovakia—"and everybody who was there was afraid he wouldn't make it back to Rome alive," Mark recalled. He fell asleep during an audience with the president of East Timor. He sat through a meeting with the new archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, apparently without knowing who Williams was.

The combination of John Paul's worsening health and his propensity for pageantry created a blockage in the daily operations of the Vatican. The problem of a senescent or debilitated pope was not a new one. In the months before his death, in 1958, Pius XII struggled with a case of the hiccups so severe he could scarcely breathe. Paul VI stopped traveling seven years before he died. But the problem was compounded in John Paul's case by his strained relationship with the curia, the 1,500 or so people who carry out the work of the Vatican. "John Paul was just a terrible administrator," as Mark, known to all as an ardent admirer of John Paul's, told me. Even at his physical peak he had always been indifferent to the operations of the Vatican bureaucracy; now he was barely capable of keeping track of them.

"The Vatican was being run by a few key people," one curial official told me in the sitting room of an otherwise deserted Vatican department late one afternoon. With the administrative staff gone, this official had come to the top of the high staircase and opened the big door himself, his Roman collar loosened in the summer heat. I asked him who those key people were. Some Italians and some Poles, he explained. They would work out the appointments of bishops and curial officials among themselves, trading candidates ("I give you one of yours, and you give me one of mine"), with the result that often an Italian and an Eastern European would be appointed together.

"Ratzinger wasn't one of those people—he wasn't a person John Paul would pick up the phone and ask about an appointment," the curial official said. "He never wanted to be the kingmaker in the Congregation of Bishops and get his people appointed. He preferred to stay within his competency, which was doctrine." Yet for Ratzinger doctrine was the competency of competencies. Through the CDF he made sure that doctrine bore on every aspect of the Church. He didn't even have to leave his office to take a position. He let prospective allies come to him.

This was most obvious in the ad limina visits, in which the world's nearly 5,000 bishops come at five-year intervals for face-to-face meetings with the pope, followed by meetings at the CDF and other Vatican departments. The tempo of everyday life in Rome is set by these visits. But poor health had made it hard for John Paul to receive the bishops—several dozen in some weeks—and had reduced those receptions he did have to pro forma affairs, often consisting of little more than a handshake and a blessing.

A curial official who has been in Rome since Vatican II became greatly agitated as he told me the story of one archbishop's visit, specially scheduled because of an urgent problem in his diocese. "The archbishop traveled to Rome, coming from a very long distance, and went to the papal apartments. Less than an hour after the appointed time I received a call saying he was at the portinería downstairs. I was afraid that something had gone wrong—that I had not prepared him properly. I went down and found the archbishop very upset, nearly apoplectic. He asked if we could take the conversation to my office so that no one would hear him in this state. So we came upstairs, and he sat right there where you are sitting now and told me what had happened. First of all, he was not pleased to see that the pope's private secretary would take part in the meeting. He began to explain the matter that concerned him to the pope. After only a few minutes the private secretary addressed the pope and indicated, 'I can take care of this.' The pope shook his head, and the archbishop continued. Only a few more minutes later the private secretary made the gesture again: 'I can take care of this.' This time the pope nodded yes. At that point the archbishop rose, collected his case, and said to the secretary, 'I have not come all this way to discuss this matter with you, but with the Holy Father!' He went out of the papal apartments and down to the street, without shaking Dziwisz's hand."

As John Paul's meetings grew more ritualized, Ratzinger made his own meetings with the bishops more substantive. Men long in service to the Church had been meeting with him during their ad liminas since the early 1980s. A number of them told me that the Ratzinger they met on their most recent visits seemed more alive and engaged than before. "In December [2004], when I made my ad limina visit, I became even more impressed by his warmth and his listening presence," Harry J. Flynn, the archbishop of Minneapolis—St. Paul, told me. His ten-minute meeting with John Paul, in the company of eleven other bishops from Minnesota and the Dakotas, was followed by a much longer meeting with Ratzinger at the Palazzo Sant' Uffizio, and the contrast between pope and prefect struck him powerfully. "The Holy Father was quite ill—he had weakened considerably in the last years," Flynn recalled. "Cardinal Ratzinger really stood out from the times I'd seen him before, though I can't say that I understand why. He greeted us warmly and individually, looking right into our eyes. Then he sat us down and asked, 'Now, how can we help you?' He was curious about the challenges facing the Church in the United States and in our individual dioceses. He had a beautiful peace about him, and gave the sense that here is a person who truly values my opinion." As they left the palazzo, Flynn turned to the other bishops and, as he remembers it, "expressed the hope that Ratzinger would be elected pope when the time came."

Inevitably, John Paul's failing health called forth prognostication about who the next pope would be. The favorite papabili—the press's favorites, at any rate—were Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan, Cláudio Hummes of Brazil, and Francis Arinze of Nigeria. Ratzinger was sometimes mentioned as a "kingmaker" or a "compromise" candidate. In truth, though, his candidacy was by then well advanced, and several people of influence were actively trying to bring his election about.

Three cardinals took the lead. A protégé of Ratzinger's, Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, called on the cardinals—many of them from Eastern Europe—who could be considered Ratzinger's base. Alfonso López Trujillo, a Colombian who is the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, worked on the Spanish-speaking cardinals; he and Ratzinger had been allies since the early 1980s, when Ratzinger, the new CDF prefect, and Trujillo, the new archbishop of Medellín, had suppressed liberation theology.

Ratzinger's advocate among the English-speakers was George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney. Although little known outside Australia, Pell had served for ten years as an adviser to the CDF, and had been named by John Paul to head Vox Clara, a Vatican working group charged with refreshing the language of the liturgy in English. My friend Mark, the controversialist, confidently referred to Pell as "Ratzinger's campaign manager," though he quickly added, "not at Ratzinger's instigation." He recalled how, over dinner one night, Pell had waxed eloquent to him about all the qualities that would make Ratzinger an ideal pope. "He was so over-the-top enthusiastic that at first I said to myself, 'He must want something out of it.' What he wanted, I decided, was to be named prefect of the CDF if Ratzinger was elected." But when Mark saw Pell's enthusiasm for his work as archbishop in Sydney, he changed his mind. "I decided that he didn't want anything in particular out of it. He did it because he was convinced that Ratzinger was the man for the job—and because that's the kind of person he is."

Pell is a large, blunt, colorful Australian who wears a bush hat with his clerical garb to ward off the sunshine, and he plays the role of ecclesiastical outrider to the hilt. One day after the conclave, over caffè granita in Trastevere, I asked him about his efforts for Ratzinger. He said, "How can I be the campaign manager when there are no candidates and no campaign? Who am I going to influence—the other two cardinals from Oceania?" He chuckled dismissively, but denied nothing.

V. John Paul's Last Year

W as John Paul even aware of the jousting for posi- tion taking place outside the papal apartments? For years he had joked that he had to read the papers to find out how sick he was. Now he had to follow the foreign news to find out what his closest associates were saying about the Church. A photograph from that time shows him slumped in front of a television set in the papal dining room, looking like any elderly shut-in.

His Friday meetings with Ratzinger continued. So did his foreign trips. In June of 2004—the day after George W. Bush, on the campaign trail, paid a visit to the papal apartments to give him a Presidential Medal of Freedom—John Paul went to the Swiss city of Bern. He might have been visiting the post-Christian future. Though linked to the Vatican through the Swiss Guards, who stand at attention outside St. Peter's, Switzerland is now a bastion of secularism in Europe. Its most prominent Catholic is one of Rome's fiercest critics: the theologian Hans Küng, a peer of Ratzinger's at Tübingen. Commenting on the Gospel passage in which Jesus raises a child from the dead, John Paul urged Swiss Catholics to rise again, to "welcome my invitation to get back up!" But the passage served to call attention to his own weakness.

Two months later he went to Lourdes—the shrine in southern France that has become a place of pilgrimage for sick people from all over the world. If Switzerland suggested the secular future, Lourdes—a site of neo-primitive folk devotion—represented Europe's Catholic past. Beforehand Vatican officials dismissed the idea that John Paul's visit to a place devoted to faith healing and miracle cures had any special significance. But while celebrating mass at the shrine's famous stone grotto the pope struggled to breathe, and in a murmured homily he acknowledged the obvious: that he was "a sick man among the sick." After only twenty-four hours in Lourdes he returned to Rome.

The pope who had made 104 foreign trips was now largely restricted to the papal apartments: the corner bedroom, the office, the bathroom with its low tub, the library, the clunkily modern chapel.

His best times were spent with his closest friends, many of them Polish, around the big table in the dining room. The regular group included Stanislaw Rylko, of the Congregation for the Laity; Cardinal Marian Jaworski, once a fellow priest with John Paul in Poland, now the archbishop of Lviv, in Ukraine; and Edmund Szoka, once the archbishop of Detroit, who was called to Rome to run the Vatican state and was drawn into the papal circle because he speaks Polish. It had become customary for John Paul to have his Polish friends at his side during Christmas and Easter, the Church's great feast days. Now they were there all the time, and the mood was something other than festive. "It was very sad to see—his servant bending over and cutting his food for him, as for any elderly person," a Roman layman told me. He went on to recall the day when he and some colleagues from one of the Vatican's media offices climbed the stairs of the Apostolic Palace to celebrate a senior employee's retirement. As a going-away present, a reward for long service, the employee's colleagues had arranged to give her a party in the papal apartments, with the pope himself as a special guest. "He was practically lying down—it was horrible to see him slumped over among people it seemed he hardly knew," this man recalled.

A rumor emerged that at one of those meals in the papal apartments John Paul had addressed the matter of a successor. I heard an almost biblical account of a last supper with the disciples from my friend Mark, who was a regular at the pope's table over the years: John Paul summoned his Polish friends and told them that he knew he would not live long and that he could envision either of two men as his successor, making plain that he would prefer one over the other. Neither one was Joseph Ratzinger.

Meanwhile, Ratzinger's supporters had begun to pray for his candidacy—if, that is, the will of God was behind it. For ten years John Paul's death had been thought imminent. As 2004 drew to a close, these men hoped that the present state of suspension at the Vatican wouldn't last too long: the older John Paul got, the older Ratzinger got, and at some point he would simply seem too old to be elected pope. He might pass eighty and be kept out of the conclave. He might fall ill or lose his senses. He might die—for as John Paul liked to jest to friends who spoke of carrying on his legacy, "How do you know that I will die first?"

Did John Paul want a particular man to succeed him? Did he tell anybody? Asked these questions, most of the people I met at the Vatican refused even to begin to answer them. No one had anything to add to the legend of the last supper or knew what might have occurred there. Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia curtly replied, "What is gratuitously asserted is gratuitously denied"—a Roman way of saying that a rumor is a rumor. But another cardinal elector, to my surprise, readily assented to the idea that John Paul had someone other than Ratzinger in mind. "I don't think Ratzinger would have been John Paul's candidate—I think he would have wanted a younger man, one who could take the Gospel to the world the way he did," he told me. Rather coldly he added, "But of course John Paul had no vote in the conclave."

Ayear ago—in January of 2005—John Paul caught the flu and took a turn for the worse, one from which there would be no return. So long anticipated, his final decline was no surprise. The surprise was in the way his last days were presented by the Vatican—not in Catholic terms but in the terminology of modern medicine and the images of media-age drama.

He was taken by ambulance to the Gemelli Polyclinic, up a hill behind St. Peter's, on the night of February 1. In the weeks that followed, the Vatican spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, who has medical training, related the pope's health with the precision of a team doctor reporting on a sports star's condition. John Paul had been taken to the hospital because of "acute laryngeal tracheitis"—an inflammation of the larynx that made it hard for him to breathe or speak. He was receiving visitors and keeping up with Church affairs. He was back in the papal apartments, having returned in the popemobile along a route lit up by floodlights and the cameras of Italian state television, which broadcast the trip live. He was back in the hospital, this time with a flu "complicated by new episodes of acute respiratory insufficiency." This time it was serious. He could hardly breathe.

One night in late February a tracheotomy was performed. "What have they done to me?" John Paul wrote on a pad the next morning.

The same day, eulogizing the Catholic leader Luigi Giussani at the Duomo in Milan, Ratzinger evoked the plight of his ailing co-worker in Rome. "In the last period of his life, Father Giussani had to pass through the dark valley of sickness, of infirmity, of pain, of suffering," he told the congregation. "Now your dear friend Father Giussani has reached the other world … The door of the Father's house has opened."

Presented by

Paul Elie, a senior editor at Farrar Straus & Giroux, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, among other prizes.

Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her middle school. Then Humans of New York told her story to the Internet—and everything changed.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.


'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.


What Fifty Shades Left Out

A straightforward guide to BDSM
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In