In 1980, I was granted the extraordinary privilege of a private audience with His Holiness Pope John Paul II. Knowing that John Paul had a great admiration for my late husband, I dared make the request. It was granted so fast, I could hardly believe it.
I’d been spending my sabbatical leave in Switzerland and His Holiness had just proclaimed that the fashionable theologian Hans Kung was not a Catholic theologian. Swiss television—Father Kung is Swiss—had a field day. Words like “inquisition,” “retrograde,” and “pre-Vatican II spirit” were repeated ad nauseam. Personally, I was deeply grateful for this act of courage; these days, one needs much of this virtue to condemn heresies and errors. The ears of modern men are so often itching.
As soon as the date of the audience was confirmed, I started thinking seriously about what I was going to say to His Holiness. It seemed to me that first I should express my gratitude for his having warned the sheep of Kong’s dangerous ideas. No doubt, the dissident priest was doing a lot of harm, and many of his hearers swallowed his ideas with gusto.
I took the train down to Rome, and with a beating heart, I was at the bronze door early the next morning. Truth to tell, I was awed and overwhelmed. Soon I would be face to face with the successor of Peter—the representative of Christ on earth, the world’s most important human being, for his authority comes directly from God Himself.
Dressed in black, a veil covering my head, I waited in one of the magnificent rooms of the pontifical palace. As I steadied my nerves with prayer, one of the papal dignitaries told me, “The pope is expecting you.” I was taken into a huge room where there was a desk and two chairs. The papal chamber attendant introduced me, “Your Holiness, this is Mrs. Dietrich von Hildebrand.”
The pope invited me to sit down and then said, “What is on your mind?” I expressed my gratitude for his generosity in receiving me, and for having made the Catholic public aware of the errors Kung was spreading. Coming from Switzerland, I told His Holiness that this act of courage would trigger slanders and persecutions. He expected it, repeating the words of St. Simeon: “The thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
I also dared to mention that it was regrettable that in Catholic seminaries some very great thinkers—Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure—were relatively little known. His Holiness listened carefully and seemed to express his approval.
The thing that struck me most was his presence. I truly had the impression that this man—who carried the whole burden of the Church on his shoulders—was giving me his full attention and could have repeated back my every word. He was fully there, as if my modest message mattered to him.
My main concern, however, was the fact that the Tridentine Mass had been prohibited. Indeed, some bishops declared that if a person attended the so-called old Mass on Sunday, he would not thereby fulfill his Sunday obligations. I introduced the question as follows: “Your Holiness, the last years of his life, my husband was much concerned about an ethical question: namely, whether it is ever legitimate to prohibit a holy tradition. Should not formal prohibitions be limited to what is evil or harmful? The Tridentine Mass has been a precious heritage for centuries, said by all priests until a few years ago. One thing was to introduce a new, valid liturgy; quite another was to prohibit one that all the fathers of Vatican II had prayed during the council.”
The pope was silent for a brief moment, and then said: “Your husband is no doubt one of the very great ethical thinkers of the 20th century.” I knew that the pope would consider this seriously. Soon afterward, he gave the indult.
John Paul II led the Church for almost 27 years, during one of the most tumultuous periods of her history. There is so much to say about his reign that it might be wiser to wait in order to give a just and thorough assessment of his pontificate. But one thing is certain: He will go down in history as a holy knight.