Biffi is remembered above all as the archbishop of Bologna, from 1984 to 2003. But in the book, he reviews his entire life, from his birth in working-class Milan to when he became a priest, then a professor of theology, a pastor, a bishop, and finally a cardinal.Magister also, and probably justly, interprets several apparent oversights in the memoirs:
In the foreword, Biffi quotes these words of saint Ambrose, the great fourth-century bishop of Milan, his beloved "father and teacher":
"A bishop can do nothing more perilous before God, and nothing more shameful before men, than fail to proclaim freely his own thoughts."
And sure enough, in the 640 pages of the volume, Biffi's thoughts erupt in complete freedom – pungent, ironic, and anti-conformist.
There is no crucial passage in the Church's life that does not fall beneath his biting, often surprising, judgment.
It is surprising, for example, that he designates as "the greatest pope of the twentieth century" Pius XI, who today is perhaps the most overlooked and forgotten pope.
It is a surprise to discover that, when he was archbishop of Bologna, Biffi – who was so greatly criticized for having said it would be better for Italy to welcome Christian immigrants over Muslim immigrants – he sheltered in a church for many nights, during the harshest weeks of winter, a large group of people from the Maghreb who were without homes.
That's interesting... it's widely understood that Pope Benedict's promotion of a Hermeneutic of Continuity is aimed at overturning the Bologna School's interpretation of Church history and Vatican II in particular. I've also had occasion in the past to criticise the late Professor Alberigo of the same school for contributing theologically uninformed comments to recent debates. [In fairness to Professor Alberigo, his collection of Conciliar Decrees from the General Councils of the Church are an exceptionally helpful resource.]
Even his silences are eloquent. The book dedicates just a few rare references to Joseph Ratzinger. But there are many hints to let the reader know that Biffi has extremely high regard for the current pope. It is an esteem reciprocated in the invitation extended to him by Benedict XVI to preach, in the Vatican, the Lenten retreat of 2007.
On the other hand, his nearly complete silence on cardinal Carlo Maria Martini – under whom Biffi served for four years as auxiliary bishop in Milan – conveys a relentlessly critical judgment. Immediately before dispatching, in a few lines, the appointment of the famous Jesuit as archbishop of Milan at the end of 1979, Biffi makes it clear that the dazzling era of the great twentieth-century bishops of Milan – the genuine heirs of saint Ambrose and saint Charles Borromeo – came to an end with Martini's predecessor, Giovanni Colombo.
Another personality that Biffi subjects to severe criticism is Fr. Giuseppe Dossetti, who in his youth was an important political figure – admired in those years by Biffi himself – then later a priest and monk, a very active adviser for cardinal Giacomo Lercaro at Vatican Council II, and the founding father of the "Bologna school" and of the interpretation of the Council as a rupture with the past and a new beginning.
Biffi writes that Dossetti maintained until the very end "a primary and permanent obsession for politics, which altered his general perspective." In addition, he was compromised by an "insufficient theological foundation."
Dossetti was the man who, in the past half century, had the greatest influence on the perspectives of Italian Church's intellectual elite.
Anyway, Magister prints some translated extracts from Biffi's book which I found thought-provoking and insightful, even if I couldn't agree with the Cardinal in every particular.
For those who don't follow the link to Magister's article (why not?), here's an address that Biffi gave to the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI:
"1. After hearing all of the statements - correct, opportune, impassioned - that have been made here, I would like to express to the future pope (who is listening to me now) my complete solidarity, concord, understanding, and even a bit of my fraternal compassion. But I would also like to suggest to him that he not be too worried about what he has heard here, and that he not be too frightened. The Lord Jesus will not ask him to resolve all the world's problems. He will ask him to love him with extraordinary love: 'Do you love me more than these?' (cf. John 21:15). A number of years ago, I came across a phrase in the 'Mafalda' comic strip from Argentina that has often come back into my mind in these days: 'I've got it,' said that feisty and perceptive little girl, 'the world is full of problemologists, but short on solutionologists'.Ad multos annos, Cardinal Biffi!
"2. I would like to tell the future pope to pay attention to all problems. But first and most of all, he should take into account the state of confusion, disorientation, and aimlessness that afflicts the people of God in these years, and above all the 'little ones'.
"3. A few days ago, I saw on television an elderly, devout religious sister who responded to the interviewer this way: 'This pope, who has died, was great above all because he taught us that all religions are equal'. I don't know whether John Paul II would have been very pleased by this sort of elegy.
"4. Finally, I would like to point out to the new pope the incredible phenomenon of 'Dominus Iesus': a document explicitly endorsed and publicly approved by John Paul II; a document for which I am pleased to express my vibrant gratitude to Cardinal Ratzinger. That Jesus is the only necessary Savior of all is a truth that for over twenty centuries - beginning with Peter's discourse after Pentecost - it was never felt necessity to restate. This truth is, so to speak, the minimum threshold of the faith; it is the primordial certitude, it is among believers the simple and most essential fact. In two thousand years this has never been brought into doubt, not even during the crisis of Arianism, and not even during the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. The fact of needing to issue a reminder of this in our time tells us the extent of the gravity of the current situation. And yet this document, which recalls the most basic, most simple, most essential certitude, has been called into question. It has been contested at all levels: at all levels of pastoral action, of theological instruction, of the hierarchy.
"5. A good Catholic told me about asking his pastor to let him make a presentation of 'Dominus Iesus' to the parish community. The pastor (an otherwise excellent and well-intentioned priest) replied to him: 'Let it go. That's a document that divides.' What a discovery! Jesus himself said: 'I have come to bring division' (Luke 12:51). But too many of Jesus' words are today censured among Christians; or at least among the most vocal of them."