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from issue no. 03 - 2007

Leading the Church along the paths of Providence

by Cardinal Tomás Spidlík SJ

Reading Scripture, we are surprized by the variety of characters that we meet there. But more surprizing still is the discovery that through their difference the extraordinary unity of the sacred history of the Chosen People is shaped. It has been rightly remarked that the Ancient Greeks sought God by observing the harmony of the universe, while the Hebrews came to know Jahveh by contemplating Him in history. From this it follows that even the people who play a part on the stage of history in the different circumstances of time, cannot be rightly assessed except within this context of sacred history. This must inspire our “contemplation of Providence” also (the term comes from Evagrio), when we seek to assess those who leave their indelible mark on the Church, in particular the popes. Looking at those of the past, it is easier to judge them from this perspective, but to guess the historical meaning of the contemporary figures seems reserved to the privileged visions of enlightened prophets. However, in humble measure the gift of foresight is always given to the Church, in order to keep its bearings as it goes on its way. Do we dare to somewhat anticipate this perspective to reveal what – in the subconscious, or rather in the “superconscious” – we feel when we want to take account of what we expect from the present Pope?
A certain context that comes out of the recent past seems to lead us to this. After the last world war, the political, cultural, religious situation underwent enormous changes. Hence the need was spontaneously felt also to adjust ecclesiastical life and even thinking to this new situation. Many times, in fact, Pope Pius XII went back over it in his speeches, in his catechesis diligently prepared with the help of specialists. It is no secret that he several times considered that the convocation of an ecumenical council might be the right way for finding answers to all problems that were ever more pressing. But his strong sense of responsibility held him back. He was aware that such an undertaking demands extremely accurate preparation.
The Council was therefore summoned by John XXIII, who, spontaneous and simple, was not blocked by scruples about the quality of preparation and did not even seem to feel the need for great innovations in proposing and practising the beloved faith according to a traditional devout style.
What is the providential lesson that we can learn from the sequence of these two pontiffs, so different one from the other? Perhaps we can express it like this. In Vatican Council II the Church found itself at a decisive crossroads on its historical path. Pius XII, in his clairvoyance, was aware of it and hesitated. But in similar moments Providence usually acts in its own way, a way well known to the Bible. All of a sudden God chooses a godly and simple man, obedient to the inspiration of the instant. Was it not perhaps so when John XXIII said that the idea of the Council had come to him in the Basilica of Saint Paul?
We well know that later the Council went beyond every expectation not only of the Pope, but of the whole Church. It was then necessary that the great affair should come to the knowledge of all the Christian people in order to draw its practical consequences. We know that the decisions of the Council of Trent came alive after almost a century. How will it be for Vatican II? Paul VI did not have the personal bent of a reforming radical. And it was the work of Providence that he began this process in a small-scale way, avoiding high-sounding declarations and unconsidered acts. And a great historical step forward was taken. Providence then dictated, as one remarks in musical symphonies, a silent intermezzo, again making use of a simple and godly man, John Paul I, who then gave way to the successor who also chose his name. There have been various attempts to assess the greatness of the pontificate of John Paul II, one of the longest in history. Do we want to add a corresponding note to the context of the thought that we are trying to develop? They say that the first encyclical of the Pope appealed to “human rights”. But it is more correct to remember that its exact title is Redemptor hominis, Savior of the concrete person, the “mystery” that, according to Vatican II, precedes the “sacrament”. These people, varied and unrepeatable, the Pope ensured he met on his many journeys. And his funeral was a stupendous testimony to the way in which he also was appreciated as an unrepeatable concrete personality.
What Vatican Council II taught us with Lumen gentium was seen in this pope: the priority of spiritual relations over the external structures in which such relations are achieved, something that is the basis of collegiality and ecumenism. The worldwide popularity of John Paul II is a sign. It shows us that the People of God, by a large majority, understood the meaning of this living sign. One spontaneously desired that the example given be continued. But the mysteries revealed in the signs must also be progressively more deeply understood.
Benedict XVI during his holiday in Val d’Aosta in July 2006

Benedict XVI during his holiday in Val d’Aosta in July 2006

The successor of the preceding pope has been before our eyes for too short a period yet. But from observing what he does and listening to what he teaches, we are convinced that he has understood the role that Providence has pointed out to him. His training was theological in fashion. The word “theology” was perhaps used for the first time by Plato of those who knew how to interpret the mysteries. It is in fact what Benedict XVI strives to do with clarity in his frequent teachings. They are personal but also in the spiritual line of the path of the Church walked by his predecessors. That they are expressed more explicitly doesn’t surprise one, given that they are formulated by a man who was a former professor of Theology.
To exemplify it, let us read the message of the Pope for the World Day of Peace at the start of this year. In the midst of the generous effort of those sincere politicians who wish to establish just legal order in the world, the Pope raises his voice to summarize the spirit of Vatican II in two lines: «Human person, heart of peace. I am in fact convinced that by respecting the person peace is encouraged, and by building peace the premises are laid down for a genuine overall humanism. In that way a calm future is prepared for the coming generations».
There is no space in this brief comment to go into further considerations. But this may already convince us sufficiently and nurture our sincere shared wish: God preserve the Pontiff to us and help him through the grace of the Holy Spirit that he may continue to lead the Church on the paths of Providence.

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