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The Other German
by Paul Wilkes
Sunday, April 17, 2005

Last night, by chance I was in Trastevere, Rome's Bohemian sector, attending Mass at the breathtakingly beautiful Santa Maria church. As the Mass began, I was surprised to see that the celebrant was wearing a zucchetto. From the back of the huge church, the skullcap looked purple, marking him as bishop. My eyes slowly adjusted. It was red. The sign of a cardinal.

It turned out to be not just any cardinal, but Walter Kasper of Germany, whom the Italian newspapers that morning had named as a member of a group of moderates and progressives trying to block the election of a fellow German prelate and current front-runner, the conservative Joseph Ratzinger.

Cardinal Kasper's sermon, on this weekend when the Gospel reading of the Good Shepherd could have allowed him a warm and fuzzy appreciation of John Paul II, must be viewed as not only a direct rebuff to Ratzinger, but also as a bold and last-minute statement of progressives who believe the Church must chart another path.

Relying on the translation of a fellow Catholic journalist, Stacy Meichtry from National Catholic Reporter, Kasper's sermon seemed to be cautioning both those within the College of Cardinals as well as last night's jammed church not to indulge in a hero worship that some have called "papidolatry."

"Just as it is forbidden to clone others…it is not possible to clone Pope John Paul II," Kasper said during his forceful 12-minute homily. "Every pope ministers in his own way, according to the demands of his era." His reference to cloning was particularly apt, linking bedrock Catholic teaching to the present moment—a surely not unconsidered statement about choosing the next pope.

"We need a pastor who is strong but compassionate," he said. "A pastor with a heart." Not exactly words that might be used to describe the other German cardinal. It is not a secret, either in the Vatican or within the Catholic world, that Ratzinger and Kasper occupy contrary positions. Kasper told an Austrian Catholic paper that Dominus Iesus—the pope's statement, but which bore Ratzinger's mark, affirming Catholicism's supremacy—"offended people. And if my friends are offended (referring to his years of Catholic-Lutheran dialogue) then so am I. It's an unfortunate affirmation—clumsy and ambiguous." Clumsy and ambiguous are certainly not casual terms between a cardinal and the Vatican.

In various magazines, such as America in the United States and The Tablet in London, Kasper has repeatedly called for a scaled-down and more temperate church bureaucracy. He has openly supported divorced and civilly remarried Catholics in receiving the Eucharist, something they are currently forbidden under Church law. When Kasper registered his view, Ratzinger rejected this approach and maintained that only those who have received a marriage annulment and therefore are fully in communion with the Church could approach the altar to receive.

In a 2001 article for America, Kasper said his thinking on the Church of Rome and the Church of the People was "…Reached…not from abstract reasoning, but from pastoral experience. As a bishop of a large diocese, I had observed how a gap was emerging and steadily increasing between norms promulgated in Rome for the universal church and the needs and practices of our local church." He said his people could not understand the many new regulations and therefore ignored them. Thoughts like these may be in many a bishop's mind, but few are willing to publish them.

Kasper's affinity for Rome's Trastevere church also says much about the man. This is the home for the Community of St. Egidio, a powerful lay movement whose members both operate soup kitchens and travel internationally as ambassadors of peace.

Kasper's tone during the homily was conversational. The Mass seemed more like a weekend liturgy in a normal parish church—a church that included the well-dressed, those in jeans and leather jackets, many young people, young couples with children, as well as the woman who sells roses on the square outside.

Kasper had kept a low profile since the death and funeral of John Paul II. Until this Santa Maria sermon. One can only speculate: did he want his say before he was sealed into the conclave? Did he want to be able to say to himself, whoever is elected, that he did not remain silent while his brother cardinals did? What was he thinking as he prepared the homily? Perhaps some day we will know if, indeed, this is the headline and not just a footnote for the papal conclave.

"As the Gospel says, the pastor needs familiarity, mutual caring and reciprocal trust between him and his flock," he said in that homily. "Let's not search for someone who is too scared of doubt and secularity in the modern world."

If this was not a direct rebuttal of the Ratzinger manner of systematically condemning the ways of the world and the proposing of a new course for the papacy, then either Stacy Meichtry's translation was faulty or the acoustics were bad last night in Santa Maria in Trastevere. But I think neither was the case.

Paul Wilkes is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times magazine. He has authored 18 books on Catholicism, including the bestselling Excellent Catholic Parishes. He is the author of The Seven Secrets of Successful Catholics and the creator of New Beginnings, a parish revitalization program, which is distributed by St. Anthony Messenger Press. 



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