Published November 2, 2005
For those who were there, April 2005 in Rome will always be remembered as a month in which one lived a year’s worth of experiences almost every day.
The memories are still fresh: memories of seeing John Paul II, his face serene and at rest, on the bier in the Sala Clementina of the apostolic palace; memories of waking up at 6:30 a.m. on April 5 to find about 50,000 people filling the entire street on which I was living, the line of mourners stretching from the Vatican’s Sant’Anna Gate to the Castel Sant’Angelo on the Tiber; memories of the vast throng at the papal funeral doing something that hadn’t been done in fourteen hundred years – spontaneously proclaiming the man they had come to mourn “John Paul the Great;” memories of conversations with cardinal-electors pondering the needs of the Church, the world, and the papacy after the twenty-six and a half remarkable years of Karol Wojtyla; and, of course, memories of the electric atmosphere when St. Peter’s Square erupted in applause at the announcement that Joseph Ratzinger would be Pope Benedict XVI.
In my new book, God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins), I try to recapture some of the human flavor, spiritual passion, and political texture of those days, in an effort to understand what John Paul II meant and what Benedict XVI might mean.
The title, perhaps provocative, evokes a comment made by Cardinal Ennio Antonelli of Florence earlier this year. Antonelli remarked that God had already chosen the next pope; the cardinals’ job was to discern who among them was God’s choice. That approach reflects John Paul II’s conviction that the Holy Spirit is the chief protagonist in the complex conclave process. Others take a rather more restrained view, arguing that the job of the Holy Spirit is to insure that whoever is elected does not destroy the deposit of faith entrusted to his care; as Joseph Ratzinger once put it, “Probably the only assurance [the Spirit] offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.” It’s the kind of divergence of opinion that makes a conclave so utterly compelling, its human dynamics as various and fascinating as the number of cardinal-electors.
Drawing on my conversations with several of those electors, as well as other sources in Rome, I try, in God’s Choice, to recreate the drama of the conclave so that it becomes clear why Joseph Ratzinger was elected, and so quickly. For the story of the conclave is not just the story of the balloting inside the Sistine Chapel (which, in this instance, was quick and to the point). It’s also the story of the conversations that took place all over Rome between John Paul’s funeral and Benedict’s election. It’s the story of the various forces, including Church movements and the media, which tried to influence the cardinals’ choice. And it’s the story of how one man’s calm, intelligent leadership quickly led to the conclusion that he was, in fact, “God’s choice” for the office of Peter.
God’s Choice is more than a memoir, however. In the book, I offer a global analysis of “the Church that John Paul II left behind,” as well as a mini-biography of Joseph Ratzinger and a sketch of what seem to me to be the major issues facing the new pope. Among the latter, I discuss at some length proposals for the redesign of the Roman Curia, for a new strategic dialogue with Islam, for a rethinking of the Church’s approach to world politics, and for a reform of the process and criteria by which bishops are chosen.
The happiness Benedict XVI displayed on being presented “to the city and the world” on April 19 was not the happiness of a man who had finally gotten something he wanted; as I show in God’s Choice, Joseph Ratzinger emphatically did not want to be pope. It was, however, the happiness of a man who had been liberated to be himself. God’s Choice will, I hope, illuminate some of the surprises that liberated man may have for the Church and the world.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.