Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

A View From Rocco's: Habemus Papam!

(The Remnant, March 15, 2009)

"Es war einmal ein Kaiser"

(Joseph Roth, 1928)

Some years ago, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand told me an anecdote about her husband's presence in the crowd in Rome at a canonization ceremony. I do not remember the saint concerned, but that really does not matter. The point of her story was that Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand was in the company of the great Church historian, Ludwig von Pastor, and that that very fine scholar displayed a face running with tears.

Pastor's face was running with tears because he was a believer and his belief had been confirmed anew. Here was a man whose forty volume History of the Popes was filled with accounts of just how much shame Catholics of all sorts--pontiffs, emperors, kings, barons, bourgeois, and peasant farmers--could bring upon the Mystical Body of Christ due to their deep human flaws. And yet here was a man who had in front of him a contemporary selection of those same flawed individuals all giving public testimony to the fact that Catholics did not have to be so bad, and that the Church was more than the sum of her fallen parts. Truth and holiness triumphed at that canonization ceremony, placing all the seemingly endless cynicism and betrayal Pastor's research revealed into their proper perspective. And tears were his spontaneous reaction to such a joyful fact.

This story could not help but come to my mind as I write this piece from Rocco's with tears in my eyes. My work involves adding my own humble contribution to what we know of Church History. I, like Pastor, clamber through seemingly endless examples of Catholic cynicism and betrayal to do so. But the truth and the holiness of the Church often shine through the darkness, and when they do I am wont to respond in the same way that he did.

Truth and holiness came to me today in the form of the pope's letter to the episcopacy (Thursday, March 12th, 2009) explaining and defending his lifting of the excommunications of the four bishops consecrated for the SSPX in 1988. After reading it, all I can say, with tears in my eyes, is habemus papam! We have a pope: a pontiff concerned, as he himself clearly and distinctly says in this document, for the truth about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; a supreme pastor filled with zeal for the truth about Jesus Christ, and Him crucified and resurrected from the dead. We have a good pope; a high priest who fills me with hope for the future of the Church when there seems to be little if any grounds for hope in any other realm. If this is not a reason for me to shed tears of joy I see no other grounds that I could ever have for doing so.

Allow me to make two "qualifications" when I shout my joyful, tearful, habemus papam!

The first of these is that I am in no way claiming that we have somehow not had a "real" pope from the days of the Council until today. I am not now and never have been a sedevacantist. Moreover, despite my many and often quite intense criticisms of John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II, I never argued that there was nothing decent that they did. Nor did I ever state that these pontiffs were personally bad men. I even had my "habemus papam moments" with each of them as well.

Still, I would be lying to the world and to myself if I were to argue that those "habemus papam moments" were the same as I feel today. Obviously, I have not been a thrilled spectator of the pontificates following the reign of Pius XII, the last of which, that of John Paul II, I myself once labeled the worst in history. I am a Catholic, I accepted them, I obeyed them, I appreciated whatever was said and done under them for the Faith in general--and, under John Paul II, for the traditionalist cause in particular. Nevertheless, my response to these Vicars of Christ was with my head, while my response to Benedict XVI is with my head, my heart, and my whole soul.

Perhaps I have said so in these pages before, but I think it bears repeating that my wholehearted response to Benedict began the evening in 1996 that I met him when he was Cardinal Ratzinger on the street outside the simple Roman trattoria called Mario's in Trastevere. My party had just left the restaurant, my friend and colleague at the Roman Forum, Fr. Richard Munkelt, recognized him, and we stopped and chatted with him out there in the little Via del Moro for a while. My wife then asked his blessing for our one-year old son, Nicholas, which he happily gave. His intelligence, simplicity, pastoral graciousness, and--dare I say it?--his tremendous sincerity very much impressed me at the time.

This impression was confirmed and turned into a real feeling of love on my part when I was in Rome shortly after his election in the spring of 2005. I ran to St. Peter's after attending a Traditional Mass my first Sunday back in the city in order to hear him speak at the time of the Angelus. Irrational as it may sound, I immediately knew that my feelings on the Via del Moro were justified when I listened to him. Why? Because it was exactly that same voice--just as intelligent, simple, pastoral, and sincere--that had spoken to us and blessed my child outside Mario's. Habemus papam, I thought, and I cheered my guts out and cried.

Then came Summorum pontificum, the lifting of the excommunications, and finally, today, this letter which I have in front of me as I write. Behold the man; the same man! An intelligent man, simple, gracious, pastoral, utterly and totally open and sincere, leaving not the shadow of a doubt in my mind that this document was written by him and him alone.

My readers cannot know what I heard in Trastevere in 1996 and in St. Peter's Square in the spring of 2005, but they can pick up this 2009 piece addressed to the bishops of the world and read it to see what I mean. Despite what the world press may say about it, this document is not at all primarily about Holocaust, Holocaust denial, and papal errors of judgment. On the contrary, its primary concern is loving, pastoral care for the whole of the misled human race. It tells the tale of a conscientious, believing preacher--the pope himself--hunting for words to address Roman seminarians while burdened down with the terrible personal woes occasioned by the events of the last month or more; a preacher discovering new meaning in a passage of St. Paul regarding Christians tearing one another apart like wild beasts, as well as inspiration in the Marian feast of the day, as he set about fulfilling his homiletic task. It tells the tale of a man of the highest office--the pope himself--who feels deeply a manifold set of personal responsibilities in undertaking his public duties: an obligation to reach out to traditionalists like ourselves who have called out to him repeatedly for fatherly help, and who continue to be unjustly treated today as in the past; an obligation to reach out specifically to an SSPX that remains in an unsettled canonical position and is rightly disturbed about the errors of supporters of Vatican II who act as though the Church had no history before 1962; an obligation to reassure other believers upset by parochial, short-sighted tendencies within that same Society; an obligation to find nuanced ways to bring the message of Jesus crucified and resurrected simultaneously to a moribund Christendom, to Moslems and Jews who treat conversion as though it meant annihilation of their very being, and to an atheistic and agnostic world going to hell in a hand basket and yet "smiling as it dies". Most importantly, it tells the personal tale of a holy man--our reigning pontiff--who needs to warn all of us that we cannot undertake any apostolic activity with any hope of success if we do not love one another; a man of charity who does indeed see some bitterness and closed-mindedness in our traditionalist circles, but much more of it in the ranks of that segment of the episcopacy, clergy, and laity which somehow feels that the SSPX is the one sole group with which the pope can open no dialogue and for which he can display no pastoral Christian love. When I read this, I see the truth and holiness of the Catholic Church before me, and I enthusiastically say habemus papam, like I have never said it before.

I noted above that I had a second qualification to make while shouting out these words with tear-stained face, and that is the fact that my love is not the love of a love-struck teenager. There are ideas expressed by Joseph Ratzinger, now gloriously reigning as Pope Benedict XVI, with which I do not agree. There are actions taken by the current Pope that I wish he had not taken, and others that I wish he would and that I doubt he will. If I am correct in disagreeing with him on certain thoughts and deeds, then there is still much prayer that I must make for him and much to be fearful of in the future. If I am wrong, which is always more than possible, my prayers will never go wasted.

Whatever happens, I think that it would be well for me--as well as for my fellow traditionalists--always to keep continuing disagreements and fears in proper perspective. What helps me to do so is a short story penned in 1928 for Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) by his tragic, fellow Jewish Austrian writer Joseph Roth (1894-1939), entitled Es war einmal ein Kaiser (There was once an Emperor). This is now to be found under the name Seine k. und k. apostolische Majestaet (His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty) in a collection called Deutschland Erzaehlt, republished in 1998 by Fischer Verlag.

Zweig and Roth, along with Karl Kraus (1874-1936), another great Jewish literary figure of the era, all regretted the passing of the old Hapsburg Monarchy and the petty democratic politicians and totalitarian dictators dominating the interwar period. Roth, in this moving little piece, recounts his standing guard as a soldier at the Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna in 1916 at the death of Franz Josef and compares it with his visit to watch the Kaiser leave for summer vacation from the same site in happier days before World War One. Both experiences reminded him of the fact that this man really was an emperor and not a cheap vote-catcher or miserable tyrant. Roth knows that nostalgia tempts him to think that life was untroubled under the Kaiser's rule, but he fights this off and makes it clear that this was not the case: there were difficulties and mistakes in "the good old days" as well as the bad new ones. Nevertheless, cold though it sometimes might have been, the sun did shine under the old man's Hapsburg scepter. And one can see that Roth wishes that it could shine again, blemishes and all. Flawed as they were, the old days were undeniably better.

Es war einmal ein Kaiser is helpful to me because I know that I, too, in wicked times like our own, am tempted to look back on the Church's past and think that everything was wonderful under the reigns of its greatest popes. Still, my historical research has taught me that this was never the case. There were blemishes and errors, even catastrophic ones, even under the best of pontiffs, even when saints ruled over the Mystical Body of Christ. But the sun, however cold it might have been, did indeed shine when they were there. And would that that sunshine might come again! Perhaps even to be strengthened through the insights obtained in the intervening period of storm.

Dear friends, I wish you would believe me when I say that the sun is shining again. Unlike Roth, who never had the opportunity to say es gibt jetzt noch einmal einen Kaiser, "there is now an Emperor again ", we Traditionalists can rejoice in saying habemus papam: not just a legitimate pope, but a pope open to our concerns, filled with love for us, and in our own day. We can now say habemus papam not just with our head, but with our whole heart and soul as well.

Still, in doing so, we must always keep in mind that this does not mean that we are now inhabiting the New Jerusalem. This does not mean the end of struggle. This does not mean a pontificate where the lion will lie down happily with the lamb. We have our work for the years to come cut out for us. And to underline this sober reality, I end with a citation from an article I wrote for Seattle Catholic on April 20, 2005 entitled "Two Popes, Saint Benedict, and the Soul of the West", not one word of which I would change today.

Fellow traditionalists, the Holy Spirit has given us a new reason for hope with Pope Benedict XVI, first and foremost with respect to the cause of the Mass. Those hopes will, however, only be realized through terrible turmoil. I am convinced that a brutal battle for the soul of Christendom, greater than any we have witnessed over the past forty years, is about to commence, under the leadership of a man who knows the enemy all the better from having once been on the inside of its camp. This will be a war of attrition, a war in the Vatican, diocesan, and parish trenches. We must pray that the Holy Father stays the course in fighting on those battlefields that he already has spotted and reconnoitered, and that he will be still further awakened to the full nature and extent of the conflict before him. We need to send the word over there, to Rome, that we will be behind him if only he will lead; that we will not leave the trenches until the war is over--over there, over here, and everywhere.

Email Dr. John Rao.

Return to main page.