VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI turns 80 April 16, just three days before he completes the second year of his pontificate. Having become Pope at such a mature age, some believed he would accomplish little and would be merely a “caretaker pope.”
But that’s not how this pontificate is turning out: The Holy Father has already made his mark, powerfully reminding the world in his first encyclical that Christianity is primarily about God’s love, reaching out to a spiritually stricken Europe and Islam, and taking careful but firm steps toward Christian unity.
He has also been striving for better relations with China and, in his upcoming visit to Brazil in May, focusing on Latin America.
“I think he has a great mission,” says Benedictine Father Notker Wolf, abbot primate of the Benedictine Order. “We have seen it now; he puts his fingers on very important matters.”
Abbot Wolf says that Benedict’s pastoral approach is decidedly Benedictine. “It’s about the basics, holy Scripture and our good, solid Tradition,” he said.
Benedict’s quiet style is, of course, a striking contrast to Pope John Paul II. But it’s just right for the times, says Robert Royal, director of the Washington D.C.-based Faith and Reason Institute.
“After John Paul II, the great charismatic leader and the man who helped to beat communism and brought us into a new world, Benedict is exactly the right person for the kind of conversation that we need to help us understand ourselves in the future in the 21st century,” Royal said.
Among the Pope’s most valuable contributions are his ability to teach, and his expertise as one of the finest theologians in the Church’s history. These qualities are particularly evident, says theologian and diplomat Michael Novak, in his approach to militant Islam.
“When jihadist hotheads scream for the imposition of the sharia (Islamic law based on the Quran) of the 11th century, no one has the authority or the arguments to ridicule them for their preposterous winding back of the clock,” says Novak. “[But] Pope Benedict’s recent formulation is quite original and brilliant: Dialogue between Islam and Christianity on the plane of religion is next to impossible; but there can and must be dialogue between Islamic and Christian cultures.”
The Holy Father’s approach to the problems of the secularized West has also been an important element of his pontificate.
The dangers of reason without faith, and faith without reason, have been an emphasis of Benedict’s discourses. The topic has been a central element of the Pope’s attention for years and consequently is a matter he can eloquently bring into the public debate, as he did in his controversial speech last September at the University of Regensburg in his native Bavaria.
But while his approach to Islam and secularism was anticipated by his earlier focus as a priest, bishop and cardinal, Benedict’s first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) was a surprise to many.
Many Church observers, even those who know him well, expected the Pope’s first major document — one that usually suggests the future direction of a pontificate — to focus on European relativism and faith and reason.
Instead, he concentrated on the positive, explaining that God is simply love. And in so doing, he swept away the harsh and inaccurate image derived from media interpretations of his previous position as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“He is very positive-minded,” said Abbot Wolf, “and I think that is something which has astonished quite a lot of people.” This is particularly true in his homeland of Germany, where negative reactions to his supposedly stern reputation were replaced by respect and curiosity.
Royal pointed to Deus Caritas Est.
“I think he put his mark down with Deus Caritas Est, that that is the central point about our idea of God, whatever other people might think about God,” said Royal. “It was a brilliant move on his part and I think it came straight out of his heart; I don’t think it was calculated.”
The Pope has taken a positive approach to many other issues, too; in his trip last July to the World Congress of Families in Valencia, Spain, he stressed what makes a good family rather than focusing on the forces ranged against it, and during his visit to Ephesus in Turkey he praised the heroism of the slain priest Father Andrea Santoro but didn’t blame his killers.
And his major interest in inter-religious and ecumenical dialogue, heavily influenced by the Second Vatican Council, is primarily concerned with how religions and Christian denominations can unite on matters they hold in common.
Theologian Novak said Benedict is posing hard questions about the meaning of life and doing so “by way of ideas, deep and carefully put, and in the good humor of a skilled professor who loves the classroom, his students and his subject matter.”
And while Benedict’s style is vastly different to his predecessor’s, his contribution may be all the more significant as a consequence.
“I wonder if Pope Benedict sometimes imagines that it does the Church good to follow one human type with another, and that it is essential that he just be himself, and that the virtual storm of encyclicals and activities that gushed forth from the fertile soul of John Paul II should be followed by a quieter, more reflective time,” Novak said. “Good seeds recently planted need time to germinate.”
writes from Rome.