There is a fine line between naivete and piety. Many Catholics assume that popes — this pope or any other before him — are somehow immune from the normal limitations of life, apart from death itself, of course.
They believe that God would never impede the Vicar of Christ from fulfilling his responsibilities as earthly head of the church. Therefore, if a pope appears too ill to function, it is just that — an appearance.
God surely gives him the strength to carry on and in a manner that can inspire others to achieve greater heights of Christian holiness.
But popes are as human as the rest of us. They get sick, lose their tempers on occasion and make mistakes in judgment. We all know, from our own human experience, that illness affects our capacity not only to work but also to think as clearly as we do when we are in good health.
The current pope is no exception to the rule. When we are told that he is in full charge of the Catholic Church and its sprawling administrative bureaucracy in the Vatican, those who know better arch their brows. Others clasp their hands together in prayerful gratitude.
A recent article in the Italian journal, L’Espresso (10/22/04), confirms the thinking of the realists. It is entitled, “Ruling in the Shadow of John Paul II: The Vatican Four.” Its author is Sandro Magister and the entire piece, in both English translation and the original Italian, is available on the Internet at http://184.108.40.206/ESW_articolo/0,2393,42260,00.html.
The writer begins with a reference to the scene in the Hebrew Scriptures in which Aaron and Hur support the arms of Moses, which “grew tired” during the battle of the Israelites against Amalek (Exodus 17:8-13).
Magister then draws a parallel with the present situation in the Vatican. “That [the pope] is exhausted in body is apparent to all. Less well known is who are the Aarons and the Hurs in the Vatican who stand by him, hold his arms aloft, and govern the Church with him — or, as some fear, in his place.”
Although the author identifies four key figures who fulfill this role for the pope — Cardinals Ratzinger, Sodano and Herranz, and Archbishop Dziwisz — it is Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s longtime personal secretary and “inseparable companion who sleeps in an adjoining room, … who holds the keys, with increasing exclusivity, to the authentic words of pope Wojtyla.”
Indeed, one American cardinal, when asked privately if Archbishop Dziwisz was not in effect functioning as John Paul III, replied that, for all practical purposes, the archbishop is John Paul II.
A key, but generally unknown, figure in the Vatican bureaucracy once revealed that he always knows when Archbishop Dziwisz has put a hold on a high-level appointment or other important papal decision. Something that would normally elicit the pope’s signature as a matter of course gets delayed, and it is Dziwisz who dictates the change.
“Historians of the contemporary Church,” Sandro Magister writes in L’Espresso, “know of no other papal secretary who has had such disproportionate influence. Dziwisz is the eminence grise of the circle that governs the Church in the shadow of pope Wojtyla.”
By way of example, the author points to the list of new cardinals created during the last consistory, in 2003. It was Archbishop Dziwisz who had the task of “final arrangement.” It is also he, along with Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the pope’s “substitute” in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, who decides “the when, how, and how long of the pope’s appearances.”
It is Dziwisz, too, who is “always the first to thunder in the defense of John Paul II, ‘pope as long as God shall wish,’ whenever someone within or outside of the curia confronts the hypothesis of his resignation.”
To be sure, others besides Archbishop Dziwisz are exercising papal authority these days without portfolio, so to speak. Magister identifies Cardinal Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as the pope’s Aaron, and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State, as his Hur. The one is the custodian of orthodoxy; the other, governor of the church’s body.
Another whose influence has increased greatly in recent months is Cardinal Julian Herranz Casado, a member of Opus Dei and president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. Magister suggests that Herranz has joined the “shadow government,” playing the parts both of justice minister and supreme court.
Herranz, Magister tells us, convenes meetings of “carefully selected cardinals” at Opus Dei’s “closely guarded” villa in Grottarossa, in the Roman countryside. All are under 80, and therefore eligible to elect the next pope.
Meanwhile, many others pray, “Come, Holy Spirit!”
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.