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Interview with Fr Timothy Radcliffe, Master of the Dominicans

Greg Daly - published on 02/21/13

Fr Radcliffe says he wasn't surprised by Benedict's announcement to resign

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Father Timothy Radcliffe was born in 1945 and entered the Order of Preachers twenty years later, becoming a priest in 1971. He was elected Master of the Dominicans in 1992, the only English friar ever to have held the office. Since 2001 he has again been a simple member of the Dominican community in Oxford.


Eamon Duffy has described Pope Benedict’s decision to abdicate as hugely to his credit, as it demystifies the Papacy and frees his successors likewise to abdicate if age and health require it. There are those, however, who fear that the presence of a former Pope in the Vatican is likely in some sense to undermine the authority of Pope Benedict’s successor. What were your initial reactions on hearing of Pope Benedict’s decision, and what do you think now, especially in light of your own experience of resuming the life of a simple friar after completing your term as Master of the Order of Preachers?

I was delighted when I heard of Pope Benedict's decision to resign from the Papacy. I was not altogether surprised since he had said, right at the beginning of his pontificate, that it would be a short one, and since there were no rumours of threatening illness, I assumed that he was considering eventual resignation. I think that it will indeed be a blessing for the Church, since it will free future Popes to resign when they can no longer bear the burdens of office. Pope John Paul II gave his witness by enduring in office even when he was ill, and Pope Benedict another witness by letting go.

When I finished as Master of the Order of Preachers, it was easy to return to community life in my own Province. As a Dominican, one is never more than ‘one of the brethren.’ It is a fraternal service, and so ceasing to hold office does not imply a great break. Our Founder was Brother Dominic, and always a brother.

Obviously, it could take decades before we can fairly judge Pope Benedict’s legacy, but in the short term, what do you think his greatest achievements have been, and how do you think he will be remembered?

John Paul II was a great preacher and Pope Benedict a great teacher. These are slightly different ministries: I think that Pope Benedict  put theology back at the centre of the life of the Church, and this is a vast achievement. In a world in which much debate is superficial, and the media filled with the exchange of easy slogans, there is a hunger for solid teaching.

What you think Benedict successor’s greatest concerns should be, and what qualities will he need to meet those challenges?

We are at a fork in the road. There is a vast interest in the Church as well as considerable hostility. People regard the Catholic Church with an intrigued fascination and a deep distrust. It is often seen as the last refuge of intolerance and prejudice, although this is itself a deep and old prejudice. The challenge for the next Pope will be to find words that touch the imagination of young secular people. The doctrines of Christianity are beautiful and liberating. How can they be shared with people who suspect the very idea of doctrine? Oftentimes, people’s imaginations are touched not just by words but by gestures. I hope that the next Pope will find gestures that break through the preconceptions that people have about our faith. Pope John Paul II had an intuitive understanding of powerful gestures, as when he went to pray at the wall of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The last two Popes have articulated a beautiful theology of dialogue. The Church is deeply committed to dialogue with other faiths, and with other Christians. But the structures of the Church seem to inhibit dialogue within the Church. We need to find ways to talk with each other as fellow Catholics. This is nothing to do with so-called cafeteria Catholicism, seeking the lowest common denominator; it is accompanying each other in the endless entry into the mystery of God. So I pray for a man of dialogue.

When you became Master of the Dominicans, you did so despite having no experience of the developing world, something the order’s electors had identified as desirable in a new master. How might Pope Benedict’s successor work to maintain the unity of the universal Church, given the differences between the Church here in the West and in the developing world?

I think that this is not such a difficult challenge. The great truths of our faith, our doctrines on the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the Real Presence and so on are shared throughout the Church, in every culture. I do not have the impression that the tremendous cultural diversity of the Church is a threat to its unity.

Pope Benedict’s visit to England in September 2010 was a success few people had expected; how do you think the Church in England has built on those few dramatic days, and how might it continue to do so?

I was not in England at the time, to my deep regret, since I was at a General Chapter of the Order in Rome. However, my impression is that people expected a policeman and discovered an intelligent, humble pastor. Many people admitted afterwards that they had been wrong about Pope Benedict. But deeply engrained prejudices surface again swiftly. Being anti-Catholic has been part of our national character since the sixteenth century and it will take a long time to dislodge.

Much of our faith needs a context if it is to be understood. Our words about social justice can only have authority in the context of the vast network of Catholic aid to the developing world. Our opposition to abortion will only be comprehensible if we are seen to be deeply open to women who have unwanted pregnancies and abort them. We need to be seen to be deeply understanding and compassionate if our opposition to abortion, for example, is to be understood. Likewise with our opposition to ‘gay marriage’. It is only if we are seen to be a community which is utterly welcoming to the gay community, that there will be any chance that our words will be taken seriously and understood correctly.

At the Eucharistic Congress in Ireland last year, you remarked on how it was quite likely that the Church in the West would shrink, before growing again; this could be labelled a characteristically Ratzingerian analysis, pointing to Pope Benedict’s favoured image of the ‘mustard seed’. How does this relate to your belief that the Church will thrive in this twenty-first century if it embraces the fact that it is the community of the baptised – many of whom are, of course, far from comfortable, let alone evangelical, in their faith?

We may well become a smaller community in the coming years. This has often happened in the past, as in the time of persecution of Catholics after the Reformation. But we should not resign ourselves to becoming a ‘mustard seed’. Jesus offered a wide hospitality, and ate and drank with all sorts of people. We need to embody his open heart rather than retreat into a Catholic ghetto. Maybe, like Jesus, we shall indeed experience rejection, and people will leave us, and there will only be a small seed left for the future. Who knows but God? But Catholicism, of its very nature, wants to break down the walls of any ghetto. 

Pope Benedict XVI
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