Sunday, July 16, 2006

Fessio on Benedict: Inside the Vatican

[Please note: there were some textual errors in the previous edition. This version has those errors corrected. Note question 7 for example.]

Interview with Fr Joseph Fessio, SJ.
(Available in August 2006 issue of Inside the Vatican magazine.)

- by Andrew Rabel

Fr Joseph Fessio SJ was a keynote speaker at the national conference of the Australian Catholic Students Association on the weekend of July 7-9 in Newman College at the University of Melbourne.

Fr Fessio is the founder and director of Ignatius Press, the largest Catholic publishing house in the US, and the Provost of Ave Maria College in Naples, Florida. A regular commentator on Catholic affairs, he did his doctoral thesis on Hans Urs Von Balthasar under then Professor Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, at the University of Regensburg, Bavaria in 1975.

In 1996, he founded Adoremus to push Cardinal Raztinger’s goal of the “reform of the reform.” As a close friend of the Holy Father, he has a unique perspective to comment on the affairs and controversies within the Church. At the conference, ITV was able to sit down with Fr Fessio and discuss some of these with him.

1. With the election of Pope Benedict, many of his supporters expected a tough crackdown on dissenters in the Church. But it seems that the Holy Father is moving at his own pace in those areas, to the impatience of some of his diehard following. Is the reaction of some columnists a fair one?

I don’t think it is fair. I think he has continued what he has done as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in responding to serious problems that have come to his attention. But he is someone who works slowly but very surely in a certain direction, and I have not seen any problem that he is aware of that he is not taken steps to address. That may not please some people, but he has a lot of things he has to do.

2. Are his recent appointments in the Curia significant, or are they just the result of personnel who needed to be moved, because the incumbents were aged?

I think the answer to that is both. Clearly, when he makes a decision to merge the Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue with Culture; and merged the Immigration Council with that of Justice & Peace, he has a plan and I can’t believe that plan is limited to those particular dicasteries. So I am convinced that he from his long experience of being in the Vatican, knows the direction he wants to move in, but rather than imposing that as something from above, he is waiting for opportunities to advance the plan.

I think a good example is the Secretary of State. Cardinal Sodano was past retirement age, and it was important for the Holy Father to have someone in that position who he could work well with. He chose Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, someone he has every confidence in, and worked with him for over eight years as Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This will I think strengthen the Pope’s ability to carry out reforms and plans he has.

3. What is your opinion over the appointment of your old bishop, Cardinal William Levada of San Francisco in Pope Benedict’s previous position as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?

It’s an appointment which has puzzled many people. Certainly, Cardinal Levada is a loyal member of the Church, and is supportive of the Holy Father. It is also difficult for anyone to fill the shoes of Cardinal Ratzinger himself, when he was so extraordinary at doing this job.

As a matter of fact, I am not sure that this office is quite as important as people think it is. I think what made people believe it was so important was the fact that Cardinal Ratzinger was the Prefect.

There was some speculation after the election of the Pope, there would be no one to replace him because he would bring all of this activity under his own direction [before the election of Pius XII, Pacelli had been Secretary of State and when he became Pope largely seconded that dicastery]. In a sense, we have a Pope who is a very doctrinal and theological man and therefore while he certainly needs the help of an important staff and in different curial offices, he doesn’t need to find someone of his own stature which would be very hard to find anywhere.

I think that the Holy Father picked someone that he knew could work with him, and even in the Holy Office itself, it wasn’t a one-man-show. One of the things Cardinal Ratzinger did inside it was set up a collaborative structure, where there was a very definite process by which different issues could be handled. I think the Congregation works very well, and functions very smoothly and therefore it is not as important who it is that occupies any particular position inside the office. It is kind of like the old Jesuit school system, where it doesn’t require any particular geniuses to make it work, it took people who were faithful to the mission, and did their jobs as prescribed, and so that in that way you can achieve a lot.

4. In the past year, particularly with the Synod of the Eucharist, and the imminent publication of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, a lot of attention and discussion has been given to the area of liturgy, ie the recent approval by the American bishops of the new English translation of the Roman Missal. Is this a fruition of the ideals you established, when you started Adoremus and what are we in fact likely to see happen in this very vexed area?

Well, I can’t predict what specific, concrete changes will come about, through legislation or documents from the Holy Father but his views on liturgy are well known and I do not think this represents merely his own person opinions, they represent a deeper knowledge of the history of the liturgy, and its liturgical life.

I cannot believe that he will not take steps to move in the direction of a real renewal of the liturgy, and he said that publicly. Pope Benedict said we need to re-read the Vatican Council documents in the light of tradition, and that includes first and foremost Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Decree on the Liturgy.

I would certainly be surprised if nothing happened, what will happen, when it will happen, we will just have to wait and see although I believe this post-synodal exhortation will be a significant document.

5. For instance, are we likely to see a universal indult granted to the celebration of the Tridentine liturgy, and the disappearance of some liturgical concessions like communion in the hand etc (called for by 2 bishops at the Synod)?

I don’t know whether that is in the works or not, that is not an area that has been in the forefront of Pope Benedict’s writings. Certainly if you look at his writings on the liturgy, there is a great emphasis on the tradition of church music, the beautiful and holy Gregorian chant and polyphony. There is the question of the direction of prayer, and the lessening of the taboo against celebrating Mass in the direction of the East. He is very supportive of more adoration and more kneeling, liturgical actions.

So those things I think we can predict he will move towards implementing because he has written so much about it. As far as the universal indult goes, I don’t know. He certainly said he thought it was a mistake to prohibit the pre-conciliar Mass. But now after having been prohibited for so many years, I am not sure what the Holy Father will do.

6. I believe last September in Castelgandolfo, a group of you met with the Holy Father to discuss pressing issues, and what was quoted from the meeting were Pope Benedict’s concerns regarding Islam. Can you reiterate what the Holy Father said then, and are these meetings to continue?

This is a meeting of former doctoral students of the Holy Father, and the Pope wants it to continue. We will be meeting next in September and the topic will be “Evolution and Creation”. Last year, it was the Islamic concept of God, and its consequences for secular society. What the Holy Father said during the meeting basically is the same thing he said elsewhere. So, I am not going to comment on it as something he said at the meeting but if you want to see what he thinks about Islam. It is public, and he has certainly emphasised this every time he has met with the Muslims ie the need for them to insure freedom and reciprocity for our welcoming of them in Western societies, and for our freedoms in their societies.

7. In 1996, after your trip to Australia, your visit became enshrouded in controversy because of the criticisms of the then provincial, Fr Bill Uren SJ, who charged that you did not have the right permission to engage in a public ministry here from him. In retrospect, was this an error on your part?

I have made many mistakes in my life, but that was not one of them. If I want to go into another Jesuit province, I only need the permission of my own provincial, as I had then from the one in California.

He was at liberty of course to take this matter up with the Australian provincial, but that did not need my involvement.

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