To say this has been an eventful year for Pope Benedict XVI would be an understatement. So many significant and surprising papal moments have taken place in 2006 — the Holy Father’s first full year as Pope — that to do them all justice might require writing a book, not a newspaper article.

But it is possible to briefly examine the most significant events, both in terms of defining Benedict’s papacy so far and in providing clues regarding its future direction.

A natural place to start is the Pope’s lectio magistralis at the University of Regensburg in September. The depth, relevance and impact of that historic lecture continue to resonate around the world, provoking examination of two pressing contemporary problems — the loss of faith and reason in the West, and how to deal with the problem of irrational faith.

“The Pope demonstrated at Regensburg that popes can do things that no one else in the world can do,” said papal biographer George Weigel. “They can intelligently put issues on the world agenda that identifys their true and moral significance in a way that everyone has to pay attention.”

Three months later, debate still continues as to whether the Holy Father was aware of the consequences of his speech. Some maintain that he misjudged the reaction in parts of the Islamic world, while for those who know him, such as Weigel, believe it is “absurd to suggest that a 79-year-old certifiable genius didn’t know what he was doing.”

Certainly, it’s doubtful the Pope’s visit to Turkey would have been as successful were it not for the hard questions posed in Regensburg. He carried the same questions to a country seen as a bridge between East and West, but was able to communicate them through powerful gestures of good will and reconciliation.

At the same time, he advanced the cause of religious freedom and significantly advanced prospects of unity with the Orthodox Church.

Benedict XVI’s simple, humble and innocent approach — evident in Turkey and manifested in his acclaimed first encyclical published in January, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) — has been consistent throughout this papal year. The approach was characteristic also of his moving and momentous visit to Auschwitz, during his trip to Poland in May.

And although some criticized his omission to condemn anti-Semitism there, his choice of words and depth of his speech were a highlight of the papal year for some observers.

“It was an extraordinary speech, rich in theology, spirituality and personal testimony to the horrors that took place,” said Father Vincent Twomey, a moral theology professor at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland, and a former doctoral student of professor Joseph Ratzinger. “He was able to sympathize with everyone there.”

Curial Changes

Elsewhere, the Pope has slowly but surely continued to put his stamp on the Vatican.

He appointed a pastorally and doctrinally oriented secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Interreligious dialogue isn’t an attempt to find common ground, as ecumenical dialogue is, but an attempt to co-exist with decorum. So Pope Benedict put Cardinal Paul Poupard, president the Pontifical Council for Culture since 1988, in charge of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

“He has made interreligious dialogue more real,” said Weigel. “The Pope has shown that you can raise all the hard issues without being aggressive, and raise them in a way that cuts to their theological roots, and that’s very important.”

Benedict made several other key appointments.

Despite the risks of upsetting Beijing, he appointed the Archbishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, to the College of Cardinals; he brought in a media-skilled Jesuit, Father Federico Lombardi, as the new Holy See press spokesman; he named Indian Cardinal Ivan Dias as prefect of the Congregation for Evangelization; and he chose a former friend of liberation theology, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, as the new prefect of Congregation for the Clergy.

At the same time, Benedict XVI has also continued to write and speak in ways that change hearts and draw crowds, particularly in Italy.

“It’s wonderful to see how much Italians have taken Pope Benedict to their hearts — more so, I think, than with John Paul II,” says a Vatican official who on instructions from his superiors cannot be named.

“Of course, they had great respect for John Paul II and were proud to have him as ‘their’ pope, but they have certainly taken to Benedict in a big way.”

            Edward Pentin writes from Rome.