The Year of Two Popes

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

Two weeks later John Paul was again discharged from the Gemelli Polyclinic and returned to the Vatican, this time by minivan. Again his trip was broadcast live on television. A camera mounted in the back of the van showed his view of the approach to St. Peter's Square. It was an effect at once dramatic and tactical, serving to keep the viewer's sights off the pope, who was pale and drawn.

The following Friday, Ratzinger addressed a conference held at the Vatican to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II document on the Church's relations with the modern world—a document that Karol Wojtyla had helped to shape. After the council Ratzinger had announced his displeasure with it; now he met the document halfway, praising the "beauty" of its account of the Church's role in promoting earthly justice while stressing the need to render justice to God first. Was he reconciling with John Paul or correcting John Paul? Probably both.

With the pope supposedly convalescing, the Vatican held out the prospect that he would lead the rites of Holy Week, as he had every year since 1979. As Holy Week approached, though, Navarro-Valls announced that five cardinals, including Ratzinger, would stand in for him.

On Good Friday, Ratzinger delivered fourteen meditations on the suffering of Christ and the shortcomings of Christians during the Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum. "Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side," he lamented, denouncing "filth" in the priesthood, lack of faith throughout the Church, and a lack of vigor in Christian opposition to worldly ideologies. John Paul watched the proceedings on a big-screen TV set up in the chapel of the papal apartments. A camera had been brought in so that he could be shown on television clutching a crucifix.

It is not uncommon for cardinals to celebrate masses in the pope's stead, but the Easter urbi et orbi address is a pope's personal message "to the city and to the world." This Easter the urbi et orbi was read out by Cardinal Sodano. Unable to appear on the loggia of St. Peter's, John Paul sought at least to greet the crowd in the square from his apartments. He was dressed in the white papal vestments, propped up in his wheeled wooden chair, and rolled to an open window marked on the outside as the pope's by a piece of crimson cloth. A sheet of paper was placed on a Plexiglas lectern. With all eyes on him—the Vatican's cameras over his shoulder, looking out; the world's cameras outside, focused in—he tried to read, and then to speak, but he could not make a sound. He put his hand to his throat, as if to say that the words were there, or to indicate where the pain was.

Three days later he tried again to address the crowd in the square. Again he was wheeled to the window. Again he could not speak. He clutched the microphone. He held his mouth shut, even when it twisted into a frown. Then he raised his right hand in a gesture that could have been a blessing, a farewell, or an involuntary spasm, an expression beyond his control.

The end was near. Edmund Szoka, the American governor of Vatican City, recalled the pope's final hours for me last July. We were in Szoka's office at the Governatorato, a large stone building set in the sculpted gardens behind St. Peter's. Several dozen framed photographs of Benedict XVI, in different shapes and sizes, were stacked in a hall, ready to replace the photographs of John Paul on the walls. Szoka, seventy-eight and nearly hairless under his cardinal's red biretta, proudly showed me a bookcase that contained the teachings and writings of John Paul—forty-plus volumes bound in red cloth—and nothing else.

"I got a call from Dziwisz in the morning, saying, 'Can you come over?'" It was Friday, April 1. John Paul had concelebrated mass at dawn and had followed a recitation of the Stations of the Cross. He lay clad in a white dressing gown, an echo of his official vestments. His closest friends were there: Dziwisz and an aide, Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki; Stanislaw Rylko; three Polish nuns; and three doctors. "I knelt and kissed his hand," Szoka said. "I said in Polish, 'I am praying for you day and night.' He was fully aware, though he could not speak. After a few moments I got up, and as a priest I am used to giving a blessing to sick people. So I gave him a blessing"—moving his right hand over the bedridden man in a sign of the cross—"and in reply he made the sign of the cross. And I thought, Who am I to give a blessing to the pope?"

John Paul had already been given the last rites, but he clung to life for a full day more. On Saturday tens of thousands of pilgrims made their way to St. Peter's Square. In the papal apartments the pope's intimates kept vigil as he slipped in and out of consciousness. Cardinal Sodano came to the bedside. John Paul's temperature spiked. As the afternoon turned into evening, the sound of the swelling crowd down in the square grew steadily louder in the papal apartments. Stanislaw Dziwisz led the others in the celebration of mass. They sang hymns in Polish and the Te Deum, the Latin hymn of thanksgiving.

And then John Paul was dead. A candle was lit and placed at the foot of the bed, according to Polish custom. The time of death was recorded as 9:37 p.m. Navarro-Valls, with a hagiographer's instincts, would put out word that the dying pope had spoken of the faithful gathering in the square: "I have looked for you. Now you have come to me, and I thank you." The pope's chief doctor would report that John Paul had "passed away slowly, with pain and suffering," unable to "utter a single word."

Joseph Ratzinger did not take part in the deathbed vigil in the papal apartments. He was not even in Rome. After making a visit to John Paul's bedside at midday Friday (it was only his second visit in the eight weeks of the pope's illness), he left the city to go to the Benedictine monastery at Subiaco, an hour's drive north of Rome, where he was to receive the Premio San Benedetto—the Saint Benedict Prize for the promotion of life and the family in Europe.

Some of the people I met in Rome were appalled that Ratzinger had left the city. "Imagine it: the pope is dying, is nearly dead, and Ratzinger goes to Subiaco to pick up a pretty insignificant prize created by the abbot to get publicity for the monastery," Robert Mickens, the Rome correspondent for The Tablet, the English Catholic weekly, said to me. Others said the excursion was in character for Ratzinger, a man who keeps his appointments. "He told them he would go, so he went," Cardinal Szoka told me. "There is nothing unusual in it. The pope was very ill, but there was no knowing that he would not live on for days or even weeks." When I pointed out that the day Ratzinger left Rome, Szoka went on television to dispel rumors that the pope was already dead, Szoka simply said he hadn't realized Ratzinger had left town that day.

In character for Ratzinger, the visit to Subiaco was also characteristic of his relationship with John Paul. He had served the pope without ceasing but not without reservation; he had maintained a certain distance, for he was not a friend or a follower of Wojtyla so much as a co-worker in the truth. John Paul's illness had prompted him to stand apart more emphatically, to work the margins of the papal office. With John Paul's death he was, in important ways, on his own. More than ever he had things to do. As dean of the cardinals he had to prepare himself, practically and spiritually, for what was next: the funeral, the meetings of the cardinals, the conclave. As a presumptive pope he had to uphold John Paul's legacy while keeping clear of the clannish folk who had encircled the dying pope. "That whole devotional aspect of the Polish mafia made him uncomfortable," my friend John told me. "He saw the cult of personality around John Paul as a big problem. And they knew it. Those Polish people knew that once John Paul was dead, it was all over for them."

As the pope lay dying, then, the prefect left town. He was driven to Subiaco in the usual car, a Mercedes sedan. A slim briefcase was on the seat beside him. He arrived, prayed vespers with the monks, and joined them in the refectory for a supper of soup, spaghetti, and Orangina. Before an audience of monks and local worthies he received the prize from the abbot. He gave a speech evoking "the city on the mountain" where Benedict of Nursia had gone on sojourn from Rome 1,500 years earlier—the place where, at a dark time for the Christian faith in Europe, he had "gathered together the forces from which a new world was formed." He likened Benedict's epoch to the present, "a time of dissipation and decadence" in which the world has lost its way. He suggested that the precepts of Benedict's monastic rule, as a distillation of Christian faith, "demonstrate also to us the path that leads to the heights, out of the crises and the ruins."

Then he climbed into the waiting car and was carried off into the darkness. This was the significance of Joseph Ratzinger's trip to Subiaco that night last April: it put him, a Roman churchman par excellence, on the road to Rome once more, placing him among the pilgrims who would set out for the city in the hours to come in order to witness the funeral of one pope and the election of another.

VI. The Nine Days

On Monday, April 4, John Paul's body was transferred from the Apostolic Palace to St. Peter's Basilica. In the two days since his death the body had been cleaned, clothed, and set out in a grand room for viewing by VIPs ranging from cardinals and heads of state to the flight crews from his foreign journeys. In those same two days the crowd of pilgrims had swollen to several million people. Now the body, strapped to a board, was carried into the crowd, as though into a mosh pit, while a double line of cardinals capped by Ratzinger and Sodano looked on—a triumph of the organized splendor for which the Church of Rome is legendary.

Four days later the body was carried into the square in a plain wooden coffin. In a silence broken only by the rotors of a surveillance helicopter the coffin was lowered onto a carpet. A clergyman placed a slim book on top and opened it to a page marked with a red ribbon. For the next two hours, as Cardinal Ratzinger celebrated the mass of Christian burial and eulogized the dead pope, the coffin sat beneath the clear Mediterranean sky, a reminder that all the pomp, and the religion that gave rise to it, was finally concerned with the fate of a human soul after death.

From atop the right colonnade, where I was seated, Ratzinger looked like a pope in the making. His thick white hair made him appear more vigorous than the men behind him, most of them gray-haired or balding. His red robes whipped this way and that as he circled the altar. Most striking of all was his speaking voice, as he began the homily by extending a greeting, in delicate Italian, to his "fratelli e sorelle"—his brothers and sisters.

"This is not the time to speak of the specific content of this rich pontificate," he said. Instead he sketched the outlines of John Paul's life in reference to Christ's exhortation to "follow me": youth, wartime, ordination, life as a bishop, and the calling to the papacy. In conclusion Ratzinger stepped out of his role as cardinal prefect and spoke as if for the whole Church and for the whole world watching. "None of us can ever forget how, in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing," he told the crowd. "We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father's house, that he sees us and blesses us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father."

Some analysts have said that the homily got Ratzinger elected pope, by showing both the College of Cardinals and the public that the judgmental German could touch people's hearts. But it can't have won over all the skeptics, at least not right away. For one thing, it was scarcely audible to much of the crowd. For another, it was given in Italian, a language foreign to many of the people whose minds it supposedly changed: the Polish pilgrims interrupting Ratzinger to wave banners demanding sainthood for John Paul; the press, which clamored for translations; the television audience, which encountered the homily through the commentary of the Anderson Coopers of the world; and a good number of the other cardinals.

An hour later the crowd fell silent as Ratzinger approached the coffin. So personal during the homily, now he was appealingly impersonal; and as he sprinkled holy water onto the coffin with a few flicks of his right hand, it was clear that the funeral had been transformed from a requiem for a pope into the simple funeral mass offered many times a day in churches all over the world. It seemed uncommonly, authentically religious: at once grand and stark, celebratory and solemn, attentive to the invisible and yet finally oriented outward toward the lives of the people who were taking part in it. For a few moments—until the silence was broken by chants of "Viva il papa!"—John Paul was forgotten.

One evening after the funeral I went for supper with my friend Matthew, the scholar. When I arrived at the residence for priests of his order—not far from the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, the gritty street that runs through central Rome—he had just finished taping a segment for a television newsmagazine. In a spotlit library full of video gear the anchor, a woman of fifty nipped and tucked to look a decade younger, had asked my friend a series of questions. Now, with the priest out from under the lights, she read her questions into the camera again, improving her delivery—and inadvertently offering a synopsis of the questions being asked all over Rome. "What kinds of choices do the cardinals have to make?" Pause. "Is there lobbying?" Pause. "Is there politicking among the candidates?" Pause. "John Paul was criticized for being too harsh on issues like birth control, abortion, and homosexuality. Do you think the cardinals will be considering such issues?" Pause. "The issue of women in the priesthood: non-negotiable?" Pause. "How important is the challenge posed by Islam?" Long pause. "I'm not asking you to tip a winner, but are there obvious favorites? Could it be a dark horse?"

That morning I had met with Cardinal Dulles at the Jesuit headquarters in the Borgo Santo Spirito, an ancient road that runs to the left of St. Peter's. Dulles is the wise man among the American cardinals. A World War II veteran who converted to Catholicism while a student at Harvard, he was trained as a Jesuit priest while his father, John Foster Dulles, was serving as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of state. Born in 1918, he would have no vote in the conclave, which was restricted to cardinals younger than eighty, but he has always been a man worth listening to. He settled into a chair, hooked a cane over one arm of it, folded his long legs awkwardly, and offered a grim prognosis. "The breakdown of traditional societies and the indifference of modern people to religious faith have left us with a burden of re-evangelization," he explained. "People don't believe the Gospel because they don't know it, and they don't know it because they don't hear it. Even in the historically Catholic countries people are minimally Christian at best. Germany and the Low Countries give us no reason to be optimistic. Quebec is a desert. Ireland is very nearly lost to prosperity. Only Poland has never fallen away." What about the United States? "With our society's freedom of choice come our selfishness and competition, which are now being exported all over the world. We are not immune to the forces of secularization that are being felt in Europe. Is the Christian residue in America strong enough to resist them? I worry that it is not."

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.

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