Friday, April 01, 2005

Hans Küng and Karol Wojtyla.

This morning I saw Hans Küng. I will never see Karol Wojtyla, at least not in this life. One of the most widely-known and most controversial Catholic theologians of the past century, Küng came to Santa Clara for a couple days to give a public lecture and participate in a symposium with several lesser-known dignitaries. As you might well imagine, I would've appreciated going to one or the other Küng events, in part so I could say in coming years, "I once saw Hans Küng." Unfortunately work and obligations to my Jesuit community kept me from hearing Küng speak, and yet I can still say I saw the man. Walking across the campus this morning I chanced upon a tent in which a couple dozen people - a mix of tie-wearing academic-types and students in shorts and flip-flops - were eating breakfast. Sure enough, Hans Küng was in the tent - looking just as he does in photographs: a slight, professorial man with salt-and-pepper hair and glasses, managing at once to maintain both a mild-mannered appearance and the bearing of someone who has gotten used to (and gotten over) being famous. Küng was quietly eating his breakfast and didn't appear terribly occupied, and for an instant I thought about walking the twenty-foot distance between us in order to say hello. I realized then that I really had nothing particularly worthwhile to say to Hans Küng and that, saying as how Hans Küng doesn't know me from a hole in the wall, he probably wouldn't have anything particularly worthwhile to say to me either. I also realized that in peeking into the tent I had gotten what I hoped to get from Küng's visit: I can now say that I've seen Hans Küng, and I'm satisfied with that.

I'll never be able to say "I saw Karol Wojtyla," and I'm satisfied with that as well. Pope John Paul II has the admirable distinction of being the most-travelled pope of modern times and probably the most-travelled pope ever. I'm sure I would have enjoyed seeing him in person if I'd had the chance, just as I'll enjoy seeing any of his successors if I have the opportunity; there's something special about being able to say "I saw the Pope" regardless of which pope one happens to have seen. Nonetheless, I'm sure I'll be able to enjoy a happy and fruitful life as a Catholic and a Jesuit even if I never see a pope in person. When it comes down to it, I guess that despite my respect for the present Pontiff's globe-trotting ways I'd be equally content if the Successor of Peter elected to remain a distant man in white waving from a balcony in St. Peter's Square. (However, I also suspect that the precedent set by John Paul II would make it difficult if not impossible for the next pope to return to this older style of exercising the Petrine ministry.) My loyalty to the Church remains the same regardless of whether I see the Pope or not, irrespective of who is chosen to occupy the Chair of Peter and whether or not the occupant in question loves to travel or prefers to stay at home in the Vatican. In short, I need not see to believe.

Laying the above considerations to rest, I'm not sure how to feel about the imminent death of Pope John Paul II. Given that Karol Wojtyla has been Pope longer than I've been alive, the shallow reservoir of my personal experience is of little help. As some friends reading this blog may recall from conversations we've had, at times I feel like the now-predictable holding pattern of a so-called "emeritus papacy" is preferable to the uncertainty of a papal interregnum and the election of a new pontiff - even if the latter situation is inevitable. At the same time, I find consolation in the belief that after years of growing infirmity and physical suffering the Pope is at last receiving his reward. Beyond all this, I remain frankly intrigued by the juxtaposition contained in the title of this post. In the last hours of the Pope's life, what distraction should appear before me - a campus visit by Hans Küng, of all people. Did I ever expect these two figures to come together for me in this way? For that matter, did I ever expect that the death of John Paul II - an event long-anticipated, yet somehow surprising - would find me in the unlikely environs of Santa Clara, California? I'd best leave things there, lest an accounting of the actual or anticipated events I never expected to see keep me here all night. AMDG.


At April 02, 2005 5:53 PM, Anonymous Karen said...

Wow, you saw Hans Küng! You should have asked him about his friend Cardinal Ratzinger. :-)

Your title is indeed intriguing. With a new pope, let's see what becomes of the doctrine on papal infallibility, among other things.


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