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Change at the top in challenging times


By Paul Collins, Melbourne University Press, $32.95

Reviewed by Br Brian Grenier CFC

WHEN a writer is a rather controversial figure, some opponents and some supporters of his thought will, in Chesterton’s words, read his or her works mainly in the hope of finding “texts to be twisted in favour of a prejudice”.

Such people will be disappointed with Paul Collins’ latest book, for it is, despite an occasional strident note, a fair and objective analysis and appraisal of the papacy of John Paul II and of the challenges that confront Benedict XVI in his new role.

Collins is an astute commentator on religious affairs and a trained historian, not a mere chronicler.

Understandably, therefore, he pays particular attention to the context (social, political, religious) of the events which influenced the personal formation of Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger and the exercise of their priestly ministry – one as pope and the other as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

There is much in Paul Collins’ book which I found informative and insightful, for example, his biographical sketch of Benedict XVI, his assessment of the impact of John Paul II’s travels, his reservations about sect-like new religious movements in the Church, his outline of changing papal election procedures over the centuries, and his reflections on a “crisis of leadership” in recent decades (especially at the diocesan level).

He claims that the real fault line in the Catholic Church today lies not between “dyed-in-the-wool conservatives” and “laid-back liberals” – designations which, he states, have “little or no meaning in contemporary Catholicism” – but “between two groupings of Catholics who all still believe in Vatican II but who differ considerably on its interpretation”.

Not surprisingly, he claims that “it is a very difficult time to be a priest”.

In the light of the Holy Father’s words, “In (Benedict’s) footsteps I place my ministry, in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples”, we have reason to be optimistic and hopeful (as I think Paul Collins is) that much good will come out of this new pontificate, this “bridging papacy” as the author calls it.

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