Father Andrew Apostoli of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal is an author and EWTN host.
At the age of 78, when most men are either retiring or already retired, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger began a new and awesome period in his life. On April 19, 2005, he was elected as the 265th vicar of Christ, taking the name of Pope Benedict XVI. People may well have wondered: Considering his age, what will the new Pope be able to accomplish in the remaining years of his life?
The answer is: a great deal! As we mark the fifth anniversary of his papal election on April 19, 2010, we realize he has already done so much. He brought to his new responsibilities a deep spirit of prayer, a great theological depth, and a zeal to proclaim “the presence of the living Christ to the whole world,” as he told the College of Cardinals the day after his election.
He set clear goals for himself. Probably the most significant of them was his determination to appeal for Christian unity. As he said in his inauguration Mass: “Let us do all we can to pursue the path toward unity!” His actual intent was to reach out “to all men and women of today, to believers and nonbelievers alike.” He sent greetings to the Jewish people, whom he said shared a joint spiritual heritage with Christians, and he even received an invitation from 130 Muslim scholars to dialogue with them about religion.
But his primary focus was to foster unity among all Christians. He realized how all Christians throughout the world were being persecuted by ever increasingly secular as well as fanatically religious governments which are attacking the basic Christian values of the sacredness of human life, the sanctity of monogamous marriage and the family, and religious liberty. In unity there will be strength!
Furthermore Jesus’ prayer “That all may be one as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; I pray that they may be one in us” (John 17:21), and Jesus’ mandate “There shall be one flock then, one shepherd!” (John 10:16) no doubt stirred the heart of Pope Benedict. As he said in a talk in Cologne, Germany, during World Youth Day, “It is the Lord’s command, but also the imperative of the present hour, to carry on [ecumenical] dialogue, with conviction, at all levels of the Church’s life.”
The Pontiff’s thoughts and prayers became expressed in actions. Like Pope John Paul before him, Pope Benedict has stressed the importance of charity in ecumenical dialogue for Christian unity. With the Orthodox, Pope Benedict made great strides. He met with the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox when he visited Istanbul (Constantinople). He has also had very favorable relations with the new Russian Patriarch of Moscow, whom the Pope knew when he was a cardinal.
A great step in the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue was the so-called “Ravenna Document” issued by an international commission of Catholic and Orthodox theologians in October 2007. It reaffirmed the blessings we have in common, such as the holy Eucharist, the sacraments, and an ordained hierarchical priesthood. It also acknowledged some of the problems that needed to be dealt with, particularly viewing the Church on the universal level, where the primacy of the Pope will be a crucial question.
Pope Benedict XVI, responding to those Anglicans who desired full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, while preserving aspects of their Anglican spiritual and liturgical heritage, issued a new apostolic constitution that would allow the Anglicans to have “personal ordinariates,” like personal dioceses, which would allow them to be in full communion with the Catholic Church while maintaining elements of their Anglican identity.
So favorable was the Pope’s constitution that many Anglicans are considering rejoining the Catholic Church after nearly 500 years of separation! Pope Benedict has also met with the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
The Holy Father has reached out to still other groups in attempts to draw them into the ecumenical dialogue and, God willing, eventually reunion in the one Church Christ founded. They include the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Reformed Churches as well as the World Council of Churches.
His efforts at reunion for other groups that have separated from the Catholic Church over time included lifting the excommunication of four bishops from the Society of St. Pius X who were ordained without proper papal permission by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
So what can happen in five years? A great deal! Maybe there’s much truth in the old saying: “Life begins at 80!” (Even more so at 78!)
About This Series
Now more than ever, we need to be reminded of what a Pope is. On the rock of Peter our Church is built. To him and his successors — Christ’s vicars — have been entrusted the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. Christ prayed for him that his faith might not fail, that he might strengthen his brethren.
The untold story right now in the media is how much God has worked through Pope Benedict XVI in his first five years as Pope. That’s why we began to commission short essays to honor him for his anniversary just a few weeks ago.
As the media tries in vain to pin the lion’s share of the blame for the developing abuse scandal on him, those essays are now taking on a meaning and depth we couldn’t have imagined. We’re fortunate to have this man leading us, and these tributes tell why.
We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did.
— The Editors