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He covered Vatican - sublime and pedestrian.

Without so much as a by-your-leave, Peter Hebbleth waite slipped into eternity, leaving a terrible void for Tom Fox of NCR, John Wilkins of The Tablet and, above all, Margaret and their children.

The most accomplished of the theological journalists of our generation, Peter had joined the coterie of Vatican II expositors -- Henri Fesquet of Le Monde, Antoine Wenger of La Croix, Giancarlo Zizola of Il Giorno, Bill Pepper of Newsweek, Donald Campion of America and, may I say it, Xavier Rynne of The New Yorker -- during the final session of the council.

An Oxford-educated Jesuit scholastic, Peter gravitated toward French literature, absorbing what was considered the Catholic Renaissance of the early 20th century led by Leon Bloy, Jacques Maritain, Marcel Blondel, Antonin Sertillanges and, above all, Georges Bernanos, on whom he wrote a penetrating study.

Endowed with a meticulous talent as an investigative journalist, a facility with words and a Swiftian satiric sensibility, he developed a theological aptitude that enabled him to comment, as the Latins used to say, on everything knowable and a few others.

He thus achieved an omnicompetence in dealing with Vatican affairs at the most sublime as well as the most pedestrian level.

After the council, he depicted the worldwide reaction of committed Catholics in The Runaway Church while expressing abject disappointment at the failure of the papal curia to implement the conciliar reforms with dispatch.

In 1974 he left both the priesthood and the Society of Jesus and pursued a career as a critical Vaticanologist. Gifted with a talent for languages, he busied himself with the churches behind the Iron Curtain. With the election of John Paul II, Hebblethwaite established a sort of Polish bridgehead in reporting the political as well as the ecclesial activities of that vigorous pontiff. While indulging an occasional, slightly bibulous British arrogance, he proved to be a truly conscientious husband, father and committed layman.

His biographies of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI are truly masterpieces. Meticulously researched and painstakingly honest in demythologizing John's naivete and Paul's Hamlet complex, they demonstrate the wisdom and effectiveness of the century's truly outstanding pontiffs: John's inaugurating the revolution and Paul's preventing its schismatic dissolution.

Gradually losing confidence in the pope's commitment to implement Vatican II, Hebblethwaite used his book, Synod Extraordinary, as a diatribe denouncing the inquisitorial tactics of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger in the ancien Holy Office. At the same time, he revealed his less-than-wholehearted appreciation of the Polish pope's moral theology -- a critical pursuit that continued down to his Nov. 4 NCR review of John Paul's Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

What is truly outstanding is Hebblethwaite's termination of his earthly career with a profound Christmas meditation on the meaning of Auschwitz in our generation.

Apparently obsessed with the 50th anniversary of the final act of the Shoah, he points out the incredible contrast between the Christmas liturgy with its revelation of the incomprehensible majesty of the incarnation against the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust.

With typical Hebbleth waitian parrhesia, he mentions the thoughtless reaction of Christians who are "tired of the Holocaustian nagging." This, he warns in final observation, poses the real threat to our besmirched civilization.
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Title Annotation:late religious journalist ex-Jesuit Peter Hebblethwaite
Author:Murphy, F.X.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Jan 13, 1995
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