April 21, 2006


The pope’s first year

As we observe the first anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy this week, perhaps the most evident observation is that this pope is not John Paul II.

That, of course, is no surprise since Pope John Paul was unique, and Pope Benedict said from the beginning that he did not intend to try to be the same type of pope as his immediate predecessor.

Pope Benedict seems to be exactly the pope that the cardinals expected when they elected him. Most profiles of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he was elected, described a holy and somewhat shy intellectual theologian who was renowned for the way he listened to those with whom he met.

Despite this, some in the media—undoubtedly reflecting the views of many Catholics—have expressed surprise that Pope Benedict hasn’t acted as Cardinal Ratzinger did while he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

An Associated Press article published in The Indianapolis Star, for example, said, “In his first year as pope, Benedict has confounded left and right through a handful of small yet significant changes that defy easy interpretation. He is very much his own, unpredictable man.”

Some people have even gotten upset with the slower pace in the Vatican. Robert Mickens wrote in The Tablet of London, “Plenty of people are losing their patience with the slow start. Many expected a series of reforms and personnel changes.”

Pope Benedict has not been that quiet, though. In more than 200 sermons and speeches, he has so far emphasized the Church’s life of worship and prayer. He has urged Catholics to rediscover Christ. “To choose God—that is the essential thing. A world emptied of God, a world that has forgotten God, loses life and falls into a culture of death,” he said in a talk last month.

His first encyclical was titled “God Is Love,” a brilliant choice as far as we’re concerned. Based on the First Letter of John (1 John 4:2), the pope said that those three words are the foundation of the Christian message, and he showed the implications of that message for both personal and institutional charity.

Pope Benedict obviously realizes that he does not have the charisma of Pope John Paul. In personality, Pope Benedict is more of an introvert while Pope John Paul was definitely an extrovert. Nevertheless, at World Youth Day in Germany, he clearly charmed more than a million youths while urging them to discover the transforming power of the faith.

After he was elected pope, Benedict said clearly that he intended to work toward Christian unity, and he has done so. There is speculation that he might be able to accomplish something that Pope John Paul wanted to do but was unable to do—visit Russia. Perhaps this pope from Germany will achieve closer relations with the Orthodox Churches than the pope from Poland could.

During his first year, too, Pope Benedict has led efforts toward recognition of the Roman Catholic Church in China. If these efforts prove successful, they could have enormous significance in the future.

The pope has shown that he wants to be a reconciler rather than a divider. He has had private meetings with progressive Father Hans Kung and traditionalist Bishop Bernard Fellay, leader of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X. As a college professor for most of his life, the pope understands different viewpoints.

Pope Benedict has continued the warm relations with the Jews that his predecessor began. While in Cologne, Germany, for World Youth Day, he visited a synagogue.

During that same trip, he also met with Muslim leaders. This time, he showed that he can be forceful, telling them that they have a responsibility to take action against Muslim extremists who are responsible for terrorism.

His first year as pope doesn’t necessarily dictate how Pope Benedict will lead the Church in the future. Sometimes popes experience events over which they have no control. It’s widely expected that he is planning some changes in the Roman Curia to help him in administering the Church.

By all accounts, his first year has been a great start.

— John F. Fink

Local site Links: