Several news stories caught many Catholics by surprise in 2006. Hindsight is 20/20, but we can see now that none of these stories should have been so surprising after all. They all flowed naturally from what we knew in 2005 about the Pope and politics and the Church in America.

The Love Pope. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he was called “rigid,” “doctrinaire,” “strict” and “divisive.” Less than a year later he promulgated his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), and headline writers sang a different tune.

“Persuasion Rather Than Stern Reminders in Papal Reflections on Love,” said the Sydney Morning Herald. “An Unexpected Letter of Love From the Pope to His Church,” said Canada’s Globe and Mail.

But those who have actually read the Pope’s words all along shouldn’t have been surprised by the encyclical at all. Even his famous “dictatorship of relativism” homily before his election wasn’t mainly about the dictatorship of relativism. Its main theme was friendship with Jesus. Cardinal Ratzinger defined friendship with the old Roman phrase about friends, idem velle — idem nolle (same desires, same dislikes), and applied it to our love for Christ.

Honesty and Islam. Benedict surprised us twice with his relations with Islam. First, at the lecture in Regensburg, Germany, he quoted a 14th-century emperor’s words about Muhammad. That sparked days of rioting among ill-informed and angry Muslims.

But what surprised us next was how the Holy Father used that moment to build a dialogue with Islam that was badly lacking and can now go forward with honesty.

It would have been easy for the Pope to simply chalk up the friction as the overwrought reaction of a thin-skinned people to a media-age misunderstanding. Instead, he expressed regret for the misunderstanding, but actually took steps to shore up his main point: Religion must be susceptible to reason. And cultural leaders who were initially dismissive began to see that Benedict was doing something bold and necessary.

His exquisitely successful visit to Turkey only confirmed that impression, as he showed respect and gallantry to the Muslim people, while repeating the core message of Regensburg, that religion and violence can’t mix.

We shouldn’t have been surprised, though. After Muslims’ violent reaction to the Danish cartoons published the year before, the world was waiting for an adult leader to bring some honesty into the debate, and Benedict had made it clear when he visited Muslims in 2005 in Cologne that this would be a key focus of his attention.

The Democratic win in November was another big surprise.

It was a surprise because, two years ago, President Bush was elected by the most united electorate in more than a decade.

In 1992, Bill Clinton had won with only 43% of the vote; in 1998, with only 49%; and, in 2000, Bush had won with just 48%. In 2004, Bush won with 51% of the vote — a 4 million-vote margin — while increasing his party’s majority and seeing the Senate Democratic leader defeated. The electoral map was almost entirely red. So it was a shock when 2006 saw that majority switch sides, and not only because of Iraq (witness Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman).

But the 2006 elections are not so surprising when you consider that the wind had gone out of the sails of much of what Americans expected from the Republicans. Most Americans are pro-life and want to defend the family — and Bush gave us two great Supreme Court appointees, which we appreciate. But Republicans gave us a Senate leader who wanted to confiscate our tax money to create fetus farms for science experiments, and a Congress that couldn’t muster the courage to pass a pro-life bill protecting minors or even vote on a constitutional amendment protecting marriage.

Meanwhile, Democrats ran candidates with pro-life reputations — with the results we saw.

U.S. bishops surprised some with their tough but pastoral documents drawing much-needed attention to issues involving the reception of Communion, ministry to homosexuals and the Church’s teaching on contraception.

But these were less surprising to readers of the Register. You’ve seen our series on the bishops’ efforts to improve elementary school religious text books, and our series on the new generation of bishops who are looking for dynamic new ways to present Church teaching.

The Universal Latin Mass Indult, which would give all priests the option of celebrating Mass in the old Latin way was another surprise to many in the Church.

But it was no surprise to those who noticed that, in 2005, Benedict appointed Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, from Sri Lanka, to the Congregation for the Liturgy. Archbishop Ranjith defended the practice of having the people and the priest face to the East together at Mass — a practice Cardinal Ratzinger famously promoted.

And so we begin a new year.

If there’s a lesson to draw from all of this, perhaps it’s that, in the Church you can expect the unexpected.

Read about the new year’s surprises right here in the Register — before they happen.