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World’s top Catholics caught displaying Christian panache

Someone should look into it -- the two top Catholics are showing surprising Christian panache. Like, radical.

One can’t, of course, be sure what is authentic Christian panache. No one knows how Jesus Christ, had he waited to be incarnated in our time, would comport himself, but we all have ideas about it. He would never appear in the pinstriped, gold-plated elegance of, say, Wall Street, we think -- unless, that is, we ourselves are Wall Street types. Ultimately, we all envision Jesus looking and acting just like us. What else would a sensible savior do?

The challenge is greater if you’re a leader of Jesus’ own church. You don’t want the memory of a too radical Jesus getting you into trouble or maybe making you look silly in today’s buttoned-down world.

Yet here are his two top representatives acting, to say the least, interesting. Being, by recent standards, unpredictable.

First, there is Pope John Paul hanging out at a big rock concert in Bologna where legendary iconoclast Bob Dylan was the main attraction. True, this was in connection with a eucharistic congress, but when did the Vatican last risk sharing charisma with such a crowd-pleasing superstar?

Dylan sang his famous “Blowin’ in the Wind” and the pope did the exegesis: The answer that’s blowing is the message of Jesus. John Paul went on to say that Christianity was basically anticonformist, inspiring people to reach for something better than the easy life, which can be spiritually suffocating -- a beguiling brand of Christianity, not prohibitive and dour but graceful and welcoming.

Dylan also sang “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and later “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a ballad warning against injustice in the world. Then the singer removed his cowboy hat and walked to the front row for a hearty old handshake with the pope. The crowd, not surprisingly, roared.

Then there was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, long noted for his repressive and punitive approach to theology, talking about a church transcendent and shimmering as we believe Jesus first envisioned it.

“The church is not a business, she produces nothing, she has no desire for power,” Ratzinger said at a conference. “She has the simple duty to proclaim the truth according to the will of Christ and to represent the face of God.”

The German prelate was just warming up. He went on to condemn the Inquisition for torturing and killing alleged heretics in centuries past: “I consider this a sin that should make us reflect and lead us to repentance.” He referred to the pope’s earlier call to repentance for errant church behavior during the first two millennia. “The church must always be tolerant,” Ratzinger now said. “Therefore, we ask the Lord for forgiveness ... that we not fall into these errors again. ... The church must not make martyrs, but be a church of martyrs.”

This is the same Ratzinger who made a career of purging the church of theologians with whom he disagreed. Perhaps it’s something in the water or a whiff of the new millennium already blowing in the wind, but it certainly is refreshing. It’s news. Unless we’re missing something, it’s good news.

“I don’t know if I am the right person to ask forgiveness,” Ratzinger said, “but I am convinced that we always need to be aware of the temptation for the church, as an institution, to transform itself into a state that persecutes its enemies.”

Ratzinger’s words are sweet music. However Jesus on a return visit might behave, we have reason to believe he would go easy on his enemies. And his friends. Though sometimes he has asked a lot of his friends.

It could be an interesting millennium.

National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 1997