VATICAN CITY — One prominent hallmark of Pope Benedict XVI’s year-old pontificate: a “back-to-basics” style of addressing key issues.

In his homilies and addresses, the Pope frequently refers back to the early Church fathers, and calls on their example to help us live faithfully to the Gospel today.

Recent examples include his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), his cycle of catechesis during his Wednesday audiences on the relationship between the early Church and the Twelve Apostles, and his pilgrimage to Poland where he urged Polish Catholics to be faithful to their Christian tradition.

In each of these cases, and numerous other homilies and addresses, the Holy Father presents a simple yet effective catechesis, made even more effective because of his communication skills — something that came as a surprise to many who thought of Benedict as a professor of theology.

Commented one Vatican official, “That’s a forte of his — making simple expressions with great conviction.”

According to Vatican watchers and experts, the main reason for Benedict’s emphasis on the apostolic Tradition of the faith is to foster an authentic interpretation of the Second Vatican Council after 40 years of too-frequent misinterpretations. To counter such misreading, the Pope is highlighting the council’s actual objective of anchoring renewal of the Church upon the continuous Tradition that links the Church to its apostolic origins.

In recent weeks, this approach — which targets the secularist thinking that has spread into some areas of the Church — has been particularly clear. In his message for World Mission Sunday, the Holy Father reminded missionaries that their work is not only philanthropic and social, but “to communicate God who is love.”

To the new ecclesial movements at Pentecost, Benedict pointed out that it is the Holy Spirit, not human efforts, who will rebuild the bridge of communication between earth and heaven. In an address to Italian Catholic journalists last month, he called on Catholics in the media to have a “clearer awareness of their ecclesial roots.”

And, in a much-lauded homily in Poland, he reminded priests they should not primarily be scholars of politics or economics, but instead serve as experts in the spiritual life.

 “Pope Benedict is very wise; he’s not proposing the infallibility of his opinions, but advancing some fundamental themes,” said one retired senior Vatican official speaking on condition of anonymity. “And part of his aim in this regard is to provide greater impetus to the ecumenical movement by exercising the Petrine ministry in the way Christ himself intended.”

The retired official pointed out that this approach is not new, as Pope John Paul II and Benedict’s other recent predecessors were equally aware of the necessity of relying on Catholic essentials. John Paul, for example, demonstrated this in a series of encyclicals such in 1998 Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) in 1993, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) in 1995 and his final encyclical on the Eucharist, 2003’s Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Eucharist in Its Relation to the Church).

And in his 2001 apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the Beginning of the New Millennium), John Paul announced the Church’s priorities for the third millennium, calling on Catholics to attend Sunday Mass, to regularly receive the sacraments, to pray and to serve the needy.

Still, Benedict’s approach is clearly different in terms of style and governance. Many Vatican watchers already regard it as “classical pontificate” in which there will be a strengthening of central government, though not of centralization.

According to Eamonn Duffy, professor of ecclesiastical history at the University of Cambridge, the Pope evokes papal tradition more frequently than other recent popes. In doing so, Duffy said, the Holy Father is returning to a “style of papacy that’s quite different in character from some of his predecessors,” he said. “It’s a return to normalcy.”

At the same time, as a German, Pope Benedict is acutely conscious of the negative, caricatured image of the Church in many Western nations. His public comments often are addressed towards those who may have been overwhelmed by such secular prejudices. In early June, for example, he reminded young people that Christianity is not primarily prohibitions but instead is a “big Yes to love and to life!”

In an interview in 1996, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said he believed the Church was on the threshold of a new epoch, one in which a “Pentecost hour” was approaching. Although skeptical of the term “a new Christian era,” he believed that Christianity was about to enter another time of renewal.

What this insight will translate into, in terms of concrete initiatives in the months ahead, remains to be seen. For his part, the retired Vatican official predicted Benedict will make some careful and prudent changes to Church governance.

“He’ll go about things very quietly, but the decisions he’ll make will be ones that everyone will admire,” said the official. “He’s very wise, has self-control and patience, and will make changes in such a way that there will no loss of face for those concerned.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.