Anecdotes of Two Recently-Deceased Pontiffs

The still-recent deaths of Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Pell brought to mind an anecdote of each that I think worth sharing with readers.

The first concerns Pope Benedict, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. I briefly referenced it in the memorial we posted about a week after his death. What follows is a longer telling of that event.

In June of 1985, Brother Francis and a companion, our recently departed Brian Kelly, went to Rome to present our case once again before the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. The trip was made possible by Msgr. Joseph F. Lahoud, a “chorbishop” of the Maronite Rite who was a friend and Lebanese fellow-countryman of Brother Francis. The good Monsignor arranged that Brother Francis meet with Monsignor (later, Bishop) Edmund Farhat who would “open doors” for him in Rome. Msgr. Farhat did just that, and with great energy. Thanks to his efforts, Brother Francis met with the Lebanese ambassador to the Vatican, with the very old Dean of the College of Cardinals, Carlo Cardinal Confalonieri, who died only two months later, and with Cardinal Ratzinger’s English-language secretary at the CDF, the Scottish Msgr. Henry Docherty. He also met with Ukrainian Patriarch Cardinal Lubachevsky and Edouard Cardinal Gagnon. But the man he really wanted to meet with, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, was unavailable due to a series of high-profile meetings involving the then-raging controversy of “Liberation Theology.”

But Divine Providence intervened. As our two Roman pilgrims were making their way across Saint Peter’s Square, Brother Francis’ younger companion spotted the unmistakable shock of white hair atop the head of a distant Cardinal walking in their general direction (as it turns out, walking to his own office in the Palazzo del Sant’Uffizio, just outside of Bernini’s famous colonnade). The two altered course to intercept Cardinal Ratzinger.

In telling the story years later, Brother Francis could not even recall what language they spoke in, possibly French. However, he did recall the content. He expressed to the Cardinal that they had come all the way from America to meet with him and they were disappointed that they could not arrange an appointment. The Cardinal kindly explained to Brother that he was otherwise occupied. Then Brother somewhat audaciously asked, “Since God has delivered you into our hands,” might it be possible to discuss things now? The Cardinal graciously agreed to a few minutes’ discussion in the hot Roman sun, asking Brother Francis what it was they wanted from him. Brother cut to the chase and said, “We want you to do for Father Feeney what Callixtus III did for Saint Joan of Arc.” (It was Pope Callixtus who ordered the proceedings which ultimately rehabilitated the Maid of Orleans in 1456. She would not be canonized until 1920.) The Cardinal requested that Brother Francis write up his community’s case in a letter to the CDF. Brother said that they had written the Holy Office many times over the years, and the letters, unanswered, seemed to have made their way into that vast subterranean vault where the Third Secret of Fatima is kept. At this, the Cardinal smiled and directed them to address the letter to the Scotsman they had already met with, his English-language secretary, Msgr. Henry Docherty. The secretary would be charged with seeing that Brother’s letter got answered. Before leaving Rome, Brother and Brian hand delivered to Msgr. Docherty a hastily written letter they typed on an old manual typewriter.

No written response ever came, but some time later, the recently retired Msgr. Docherty visited the communities in Still River and helped to initiate a partially successful process of canonical rehabilitation, the details of which are beyond the scope of the present lines. On that occasion, when Brother Francis expressed his frustration to the Monsignor that the promised written reply never came, the Scotsman cheerfully replied, “Well, I’m here!” His visit, as unofficial as it all seemed, was the actual response. A fine speciment of romanità. Subsequent events led to communities in the Worcester Diocese, who are faithful to the memory and mission of Father Feeney, being given canonical recognition.

For several years after that, Brother Francis received a Christmas card from Cardinal Ratzinger.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The other recently deceased pontiff is Cardinal Pell. At the outset, I should explain my use of the word “pontiff” in his regard, as there is some confusion on the point. A “pontiff” (from pontifex, Latin for “bridge builder”) is one word, borrowed from Roman antiquity, for a bishop. The pope does not have exclusive claim to the title pontiff. He does have exclusive claim to the proper titles, supreme pontiff, sovereign pontiff, and Roman pontiff. Because Cardinal Pell was a bishop, he, too, was a pontiff.

When Saint André Bessette was canonized on October 17, 2010, I had the grace to be present in Saint Peter’s Square to witness the Holy Father solemnly declaring my patron a saint. On that occasion, there were other beati who were canonized, including Australia’s first canonized saint, Saint Mary MacKillop (one of a handful of “excommunicated saints”). In addition to the French Canadians who descended on the Eternal City — including New England Franco-Americans — there were plenty of Aussies on hand. Their presence was very animated, to say the least.

This is what led to me seeing Cardinal Pell in person. The party I was with ended up in a restaurant on the Borgo Pio with an Australian priest friend. Cardinal Pell walked into the place — a big smiling hulk of a man, looking every bit the rugged Australian rules footballer he used to be. I am fairly tall (6’3”), and only rarely have to “look up” to any man in the literal sense, but His Eminence had at least a good inch on me. If memory serves, he had to duck to fit in the Roman doorway. The entire restaurant full of people turned to acknowledge him, and he was more or less gregariously greeted by many who knew him, including my Aussie priest friend. Cardinal Pell’s personality, gracious and unassuming, was even bigger than his frame; it filled the room. At a superficial level, I instantly liked the man.

The Australian priest I was with that day would later become Cardinal Pell’s private secretary. It was he who used to open the death threats that were sent to Cardinal Pell when he was Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy. Yes, death threats. It was also he who revealed to me that it was a matter of certainty that Cardinal Pell’s Roman enemies were in direct contact with his Australian enemies in the matter of the trumped-up pederasty charges that got him thrown in solitary confinement for over 400 days: a vicious and cruel travesty of justice.

The aforementioned Aussie priest, who served various posts as a Vatican official, offered the traditional Roman rite exclusively, and I was privileged to serve his private Mass in Saint Peter’s on several occasions. It is a matter of speculation, but this good alter Christus may have had some influence on his eminent boss, who no doubt knew of his priest secretary’s traditionalism. I say that because I recently learned that, “Cardinal Pell told OSV News he was himself ‘completely devoted’ to [the] Tridentine [sic] Mass, which he said he ‘celebrated each day.’”

In his last days, perhaps owing to a wake-up he received due the injustices against him, Cardinal Pell did some truly extraordinary things. He was the author of the “Demos Memo,” as Sandro Magister revealed and the AP reported. That caused quite a stir.

From what I can tell, Cardinal Pell was a conservative who would have been considered a progressive in an earlier decade, but who shed much of his progressive baggage in later life. In both respects, this makes him much like Josef Ratzinger, the one-time disciple of Karl Rahner. Maybe this genuine progress was occasioned by the vicious attacks on Pell by his ultra-progressive enemies. Who knows? It must be said that, in the face of this ill treatment, he remained a gentleman; as Phil Lawler pointed out, Pell’s largesse was on full display when he said that his nemesis in the Roman Curia, the disgraced Cardinal Becciu, should have been given due process. His Eminence was even overtly critical of Pope Francis’ interventions against Becciu during the trial.

Cardinal Pell’s take on extra ecclesiam nulla salus was disappointing, but is it both notable and encouraging that he was becoming more traditional on that point, as he himself testified in an article in First Things. There, he parts company with Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose mad ravings on universal salvation the Cardinal rejected after having believed them for some time. But he went on to say, concerning Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, that, “The doctrine of ‘no salvation outside the Church’ was thereby substantially developed.” Would that His Excellency had a clearer idea of doctrinal development! He would have seen, I think, that extra ecclesiam has not been so developed. (The aforementioned Father Karl Rahner, S.J., actually claimed that Lumen Gentium said that atheists could go to Heaven qua atheists, a claim that it not remotely backed up in the actual text.)

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Some future council must undo this confusion. There are approved private revelations that point to such an enormous epochal event. May Our Lord hasten the day!

In the meantime, Catholic piety demands gratitude for the good deeds of both of these pontiffs, and that we pray for them and all the faithful departed.