What God knows is not necessarily what God wills. Each pope is guaranteed the protection of the Holy Spirit from fallible definitions of faith and morals, but to suppose that each pope is there because God wants him there, including the unworthy successors of Peter, comes close to the unforgivable blasphemy against the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. Twenty year old Benedict IX was at least as nightmarish as his successor Gregory VI who usually is counted with his predecessor among the popes who relinquished their office. There are times, though, when the hand of God is not manhandled, and that, for instance, is why Cardinal Cooke once told me that he had never been so conscious of the presence of the Holy Spirit as he was in the Conclave that elected John Paul II. It may also be that the sudden death of John Paul I, as stunning as recent events in the Vatican, was not untimely if it was part of a higher plan.
If he was expected to be a caretaker pope, he took care very well, proving himself unexpectedly radical in his reform of reform, which is more difficult than reform itself, for it restores the form that reformers forgot. So we had the renewal of liturgical integrity in an ecology of beauty, streamlining of the Curia, greater attention to episcopal appointments, the overdue beatification of Newman with all its portents for theological science, the Anglican Ordinariate which may be less significant for what it becomes than for the fact that it exists at all, and progress with the Eastern churches. His plans, like all “the best laid schemes of mice and men” were not completely realized. Not all that Benedict called “filth” was removed, and we can be sure that a media eager to affect being scandalized, will point out among those entering the Conclave, those who bring with them the shadows of what Benedict tried to dispel. But he continues to dignify in charity even those who may not understand that “dignitas.” He announced his renunciation of office in Latin, and by so doing indicated his hope that even if some of those listening may have mingled astonishment with incomprehension, his successor will be able to speak the official language of the Church he leads and the city he governs.