31 December 2022

The day of a brief handshake
with Pope Benedict XVI and
a missed ‘selfie’ in the Vatican

A brief introduction to Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican … almost missed by the cameras in the days before ‘selfies’ became acceptable and sophisticated

Patrick Comerford

Soon after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI, Michael McGough recalled a joke in the Los Angeles Times about three German-speaking theologians who all died on the same day.

Karl Rahner, Hans Küng and Joseph Ratzinger all arrived at the pearly gates at the same time and are sent together to Saint Peter’s office to find out their fates.

Saint Peter points at Rahner and says ‘Karl! In my office.’

Four hours later, the office door opens, and Karl Rahner comes out. He is distraught, mumbling, ‘Oh my, that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done! How could I have been so wrong! So sorry.’ He stumbles off into heaven, a testament to the mercy of God.

Hans Küng goes in next. After eight hours, the door opens, and Küng is near collapse. He too is mumbling, ‘How could I have been so wrong!’ as he lurches into heaven, another testament to God’s mercy.

Saint Peter finally calls in Joseph Ratzinger. Twelve hours later, the door opens and Saint Peter stumbles out, mumbling, ‘How could I have been so wrong?’

Many years ago, when I was chair of the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, an old mission agency founded in TCD to work in Chinam I was taking part in a conference in Rome in September 2005 on the Church in China. I was part of a small group who were invited to sit in the front row at the top steps of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and I was introduced – unexpectedly and albeit very briefly – by Cardinal Desmond Connell to Pope Benedict XVI.

It was an opportunity to bring greetings from Archbishop John Neill of Dublin, and this short message was conveyed graciously to the Pope by Cardinal Connell.

It is with humour that I can still recall how it was almost a missed photo opportunity too. It was the day when ‘selfies’ were still seen as selfish and were not as sophisticated and as acceptable as they are today, and another Irish priest who had a camera that day captured the moment only after we had shaken hands, as I pulled my hand back and the Pope moved on to greet some Chinese delegates to the conference.

The photograph and reports of the meeting were later carried in a number of Church publications in Ireland, including the Church of Ireland Gazette and the Church Review.

It is more than 17 years since that conference in Rome and that brief papal handshake in the Vatican that was never properly caught by the cameras. But it came to mind this morning (31 December 2022) when I heard the news that the former Pope Benedict XVI has died.

Another figure in Michael McGough’s joke, the celebrated but controversial Swiss theologian and priest Hans Küng also died recently (6 April 2021) at his home in Tübingen at the age of 93. He has lived with Parkinson’s disease for the past eight years and who lived, taught and lectured for more than 40 years in Germany.

He engaged in dialogue with Buddhism, Chinese religions, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, became the most prominent Catholic theologian to speak in China and the first theologian to address a group of astrophysicists. His popularity was directly related to his readability, clarity, erudition, honesty, fearlessness. He was profound yet popular, intellectual yet understandable, said and wrote what he thought needed to be expressed and was passionate in his search for truth.

After seven years studying philosophy and theology in Latin at the Gregorian University in Rome, Küng was ordained a priest in Rome in 1954 and celebrated his first Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica. He completed a further three years of study in French for his doctorate at the Sorbonne and the Institut Catholique in Paris, where he wrote his thesis on Justification.

In his doctoral dissertation on Justification, Küng concluded an agreement in principle was possible between Catholic theology as set down at the Council of Trent in the 16th century and 20th century Reformation theology found in the work of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics was possible.

At 34, he was the youngest expert at Vatican II, soon joined by the Dominicans Edward Schillebeeckx of Belgium and Yves Congar of France; the German priests Joseph Ratzinger and Karl Rahner, and John Courtney Murray, George Higgins, John Quinn, Gustave Weigel and Vincent Yzermans from the US.

His Infallible?: An Inquiry caused an uproar across the Catholic world in 1971, and made him l’enfant terrible of the Catholic Church. He questioned his Church’s teachings on infallibility, celibacy, contraception and the ordination of women as well as men.

His most popular book, On Being a Christian (Christ sein) was a best-seller when it was published in 1974, an unusual achievement for a work of scholarly theology. I bought – and I still have – the first edition in English that year.

At the end of 1979, the Vatican revoked his missio canonical or license to teach as a Catholic theologian at the University of Tübingen, where he had been Professor of Dogmatic Theology from 1963. In the end, he retained his professorship in the university's secular Institute for Ecumenical Research, which he had founded and directed since the early 1960s.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was involved in removing his teaching license. As dean of theology at Tübingen in the early 1960s, Küng had offered – and Ratzinger accepted – a professorship at Tübingen. But the future Pope left academia, and later headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the successor to the Inquisition, for 25 years under Pope John Paul II.

By the time I became a post-graduate student at the Irish School of Ecumenics (1982-1984), Hans Küng was seen as one the most influential theologians in the world. I was doubly blessed, because one of my lecturers, the late Revd Dr Robin Boyd, had been a doctoral student under yet another great German-speaking Swiss theologian, Karl Barth.

Many of my colleague priests remember Hans Küng’s visit to Dublin in 1985, and still regard his lecture in Trinity College Dublin during that visit as one of the seminal moments in their theological lives.

In the 1990s, Küng took on the task of preparing a ‘Declaration Toward a Global Ethic’ for the Parliament of the World Religions in Chicago in 1993. The most referenced part of the declaration was the proposition that there can be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions.

Little did I realise when I met Küng at that lecture in TCD almost 30 years ago that I would later share the distinction of contributing to a book with him.

In 2000, to mark the millennium in a particularly Christian way, The Irish Times ran a monthly series of features, commissioned by Patsy McGarry. The series opened with a contribution from Hans Küng, and continued each month with distinguished contributors who followed in his wake, including Jerome Murphy O’Connor, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Sean Freyne and Andrew Greely. Each month, I completed the features with a series that built up into ‘A brief history of Christianity.’

The features were collected and edited by Patsy McGarry in a book, Christianity, published by Veritas in 2001. The opening chapter was Hans Küng’s opening feature, and the second half of the book was my ‘Brief History of Christianity.’ The cover illustration was an icon I had bought in Rethymnon in Crete in 1989.

To the surprise of many, Küng requested a meeting with Ratzinger shortly after his election as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. The two had retained a distant respect for one another and maintained a limited correspondence over 45 years.

In On Being a Christian, Küng quoted the German physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, who said: ‘There is one thing I would like to tell the theologians: something which they know and others should know. They hold the sole truth which goes deeper than the truth of science, on which the atomic age rests. They hold a knowledge of the nature of man that is more deeply rooted than the rationality of modern times. The moment always comes inevitably when our planning breaks down and we ask and will ask about the truth.’

With the Revd Dr Alan McCormack (then Dean of Residence, Trinity College Dublin), and Archbishop Nikitas (Lulias) of Thyateira and Great Britain (then Archbishop of Hong Kong) at the conference on the Churches and China in Rome in September 2005

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