BY PETER STANFORD
The first (and last?) of the Vaticanologists
PETER H liBBLETHWAITE was the original Vaticanologist. Indeed the phrase can only have been invented to describe him.
No one else knew so much about the workings and the history of the Vatican and its curia. The trust and respect which Peter inspired amongst the most senior figures in the Church was unmatched by any other journalist. And his ability to translate what are often complex and dare I venture to say it dull machinations within the Leonine Walls into an entertaining and informative article was well-known to both Catholic Herald readers and a wider reading audience.
With Pope John Paul II ailing, The Next Pope (Harper Collins Fount, £5.99) was intended by its author as the latest in a long line of contributions to greater understanding of the Vatican, a sort of companion guide to the succession. The book therefore establishes from the outset its thesis that the Catholic Church is currently in a preconclave era of manoeuvring for position among the likely candidates. With, in Peter's opinion, John Paul worn out physically, drained of new ideas and sustained only by his enthusiasm for the next millennium, The Next Pope was going to be a timely text for anyone interested in the future of the throne of St Peter.
Subsequent events have, however, given this brief a tragic twist. While the Polish Pontiff, whose obituary this book was to have been, has once again shown his physical resilience on a gruelling trip round Asia and Australia, Peter Hebblethwaite's life was cut short before Christmas. The Next Pope therefore has taken on a whole new character, less the "enquiry" of its sub-title, and now, sadly, a last reminder of its author's talents and his own particular view of the Church.
Peter's great mission, both when he was a Jesuit and afterwards when he left the priesthood and married, was to see the hopes and expectations of the Second Vatican Council put into practice. Indeed he was one of the dwindling group of People who could claim to have taken part in this landmark in the Church's history. He attended the final session in 1965 while writing for the Jesuit review The Month.
The Next Pope makes no attempt to disguise Peter's oft-stated dismay at John Paul's interpretation of Vatican II. He accepted that the Pope
who, of course, left his own mark on the Council itself is sincere in his belief that he is implementing its blueprint. But Peter patently believed that John Paul had got it wrong. The issue of collegiality in particular and the rough justice handed out to many senior "liberal" bishops and cardinals these past 16 years had angered Peter, and that dismay is abundant in the text.
But this is not a tirade against the Pope. That was not Peter's style. He appreciated the nuances of the Church's life. There is great hope in this book. The spirit of Vatican II is too strong, Peter was convinced, to be extinguished and there are chapters, for those in need of inspiration, on the enduring legacies of both John XXIII and Paul VI. These. two pontiffs were well-served by Peter as their biographer and here he offered a summary of his views on them, a taster for the fuller versions which will go down as his finest achievement as a writer and historian.
In his assessment in this book of John Paul II was the germ of a future biography that now will never be. Karol Wojtyla could not have hoped for a more thorough biographer. Though he has generated more column inches of newsprint than any other pope in modern times, too much of what is written about him never gets beyond the superficial. However, from his examination of John Paul's passionate belief in a spiritual Europe, Peter drew out wider and more profound themes in The Next Pope. Whether you agree with him or not on these issues, the book provides the basis for broader debate in Catholic circles and beyond.
The Next Pope also turned its attention to the conduct of a conclave evidently quite unlike anything we have seen in the film version of Morris West's Shoes of the Fisherman and, inevitably, to the eventual outcome. Three frontrunners emerge. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the much tipped Jesuit Archbishop of Milan, was clearly Peter's favourite to lead the Church from the centre ground into the next millennium, bringing consensus across the divide of traditionalists and liberals.
Failing that he opted for Cardinal Pio Laghi, former ambassador in Argentina and America, now at the Catholic Education Congregation, as a compromise candidate, or, as an outside bet, Cardinal Francis Arinze, the Nigerian who heads the Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. The Church's future lies in the developing world and Cardinal Arinze, Peter suggested, as the first black pope would have enormous impact.
But any choosing of names is hardly an exact science, Vaticanologist or not, and Peter would have been the first to acknowledge it. "Bookmakers offer odds and the foolish take them", Peter wrote. His only concrete prediction was that the next Pope will be under 80, one of the 120 cardinal electors and a man.
But do not be surprised whenever the day comes to find Peter Hebblethwaite's personal terna (or list) revived; for no-one better under
stood the minds of those who run God's business address on earth. It is hard to see anyone inheriting his mantle, and the appellation Vaticanologist may well die with him.
ONE OF' mu. obituaries I read about Peter stressed that he was throughout his adult life very much a Jesuit, both before and after he formally left the Society of Jesus.
Like many priests who go on to marry and have families, Peter remained a committed Catholic, anxious to contribute to his Church in whatever way he could.
He was one of the lucky ones who found a role and a voice. Too many others talented, articulate, spiritual men, natural leaders and opinion-formers are not so fortunate and are left on the sidelines. This is a terrible waste at a time when the Church needs all hands on deck, lay and clerical. Though the wider Catholic community have grown steadily more accepting and accommodating of former priests in recent times, there is much progress still to be made. Peter Hebblethwaite's example might act as a spur, a demonstration of what could be achieved.
TIPPING THE FRONT-runners is only a tiny part of The Next POpe but elsewhere at the moment it is fast becoming an obsession.
Obviously the obituary page editors have to be ready with their copy about such a major figure as John Paul II. On the BBC's list of VIPs whose demise will require a readjustment to the schedules, the Pope ranks alongside the Queen, the Prime Minister and senior members of the royal family.
But I couldn't help but noticing how John Paul's enormously successful trip out East was turned with the notable exception of some glorious aerial shots of the huge crowds in the Philippines into an excuse to gather a bunch of pundits in a studio, let them say a few words in his praise, and then get on with the serious business of the succession.
While I have to put up my hand and plead guilty to participating in one or two such debates, it has been with a growing sense of unease.
The assumption is that John Paul has nothing new left to say. Well, he has never been predictable and we might do well, as they say, to watch his lips, and not just when they're kissing the airport tarmac. t