Cardinal Danneels: the most dangerous temptation is that of a crushed hope. Those who crush hope take away the joy of life, creativity, and imagination. And that, it seems to me, is fatal to the Kingdom of God in our times.

Words for us to keep in mind, as we focus our efforts around “transitioning off fossil fuels without delay” (Laudato Si’ 165).  Scientists have said that must be now to keep climate disruption below very dangerous levels.  We maintain hope in and commitment to our work of keeping temperature rise below 1.5 to “well below 2C” per the Paris Agreement, realizing that economically advantaged countries must move much more quickly…

Excerpt from Robert Mickens, 15 Mar 2019, Godfried Danneels: Intellectual, pastor and man of quiet hope

“The main temptations today are not the attacks against the faith or the lack of love. No, the most dangerous temptation is that of a crushed hope,” Danneels wrote.  “Those who crush hope take away the joy of life, creativity, and imagination. And that, it seems to me, is fatal to the Kingdom of God in our times,” he warned.

The cardinal knew that from personal experience. In the course of nearly 35 years of the overlapping “dual papacy” of Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) and Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), many so-called “Vatican II Catholics” — including those in the clergy — had begun to see, little by little, their hopes for Church reform dwindle.  Danneels, in a quiet and respectful way, was one of the few men in the hierarchy who kept that hope from being utterly crushed.  An official biography of the Belgian cardinal published a few years ago states that Danneels was part of an international group of cardinals and bishops (the Sankt Gallen group) that began meeting in 1996 in what were already the slowly waning days of John Paul’s long pontificate.

In the last couple of years before the Polish pope’s death in April 2005 they saw there were forces already preparing to elect Ratzinger as the successor.  The Sankt Gallen group — Danneels mischievously called it the Sankt Gallen mafia — identified Cardinal Bergoglio as the candidate with the greatest chance of defeating Ratzinger for the papacy. As we know, that did not happen. Not in 2005 at least.

Francis I, the pope that never was

In the days before a conclave, journalists prepare biographies of candidates with the best chance of becoming pope. In 2005 one of those assigned to me was Godfried Danneels.   I didn’t think he had a realistic chance of getting elected, but I wrote an article about him just in case. Retrieving it from my files, I see that I gave it the title, “Pope Francis I is First Flemish Pope in Nearly 500 Years.”

I described him then as “a man of burning intellect with nearly 28 years of pastoral experience as a bishop in post-modern Europe.”

The never published article said Danneels “is known for his outstanding capacity to analyze situations and draw sensible conclusions from them” and it noted that “he is someone deeply marked by quiet joy and unwavering hope.”

It also described him as someone with a “deep reverence for tradition” who “favors evolution rather than revolution.” It referred to his “strong sense of perception and sensitivity to the needs of others” and stated that “he has clear ideas about collegiality, decentralization, and open discussion in the Church.”

“The new pope believes the Church must find ways to convince rather than coerce people, and he often quotes Dostoievsky’s line that ‘beauty will save the world’,” the draft article concluded.

Pope Francis actually was elected. But it wasn’t Danneels and it wasn’t in 2005. It was Bergoglio in 2013.

Danneels in his own words

Of course, I could not have foreseen that in May 2008 when I had my most memorable, and certainly most significant, personal encounter with Cardinal Danneels.

It took place at his residence in Mechelen — the Flemish city and historical seat of the Mechelen-Brussel Archdiocese.

The hour-long conversation came just a few weeks before his 75th birthday. But he had already submitted his resignation to Benedict, who would officially accept it 18 months later.

It was during that time together that the cardinal shared with me those above-quoted words of St. Francis, which I would now describe as Danneels’ epitaph.

My intention for that afternoon visit 11 years ago was to look back over his life and legacy in light of his impending retirement. As usual, the shy and soft-spoken cardinal was reluctant to focus on himself.

…Cardinal Danneels, I learned that afternoon, saw himself mainly as a teacher and preacher, and missed no longer being a university professor. He said his whole life as a bishop had been “the application of Vatican II, especially in liturgy, catechesis and the interface between the Church, the world and culture.”

“I am a man of the word. That’s my charism,” he told me. “I’m not a good manager… governor… strategist. The essential thing is to announce Christ to the world, and very often I have some antennae of what is happening in the world,” he said.

When I asked him if I would call him a progressive, as many did, he said:  “I have never had the impression of being an ideological progressive… Yes, I have been a bit progressive. But I always say I’m in the extreme center… It’s marvelous. Because to be a blind progressive is not very intellectual.”

Then he added, “You cannot serve the Church only by your heart. You have to serve it also by your mind.”

..At the very end of my long conversation with Danneels in 2008, I asked him what he believed to be his greatest achievements in his many years as Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussel.   “Only God knows them,” he said. “I am not complaining that I do not know them, because it is better to remain humble.”

He concluded by saying: “We will see before the throne of God at the end of my life. The first thing I will say to God when I meet him will be, ‘Have compassion on me.’ And God will probably say, ‘I have. Come in’.”

Then with a twinkle in his eye and a gentle laugh he added: “He’ll probably say I need a bit of purgatory, but that’s just necessary to get acclimated.”

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