To hear some tell it, you’d think that Pope Benedict XVI’s Lent has been a long and difficult one, filled with controversies, missteps and misinterpretations.
The Holy See has, no doubt, been hit by a number of media storms lately. But storms are only damaging if you don’t weather them properly.
As Easter comes, with spring, we thought we would point out that the storms the Vatican has faced may not have done as much damage as some would want to think.
That’s because Pope Benedict continually defies expectations. He is deeply pastoral in a way that we might not expect from a man who has worked so long in curial offices. He is, above all, a shepherd of souls, and, when difficult situations arise, they don’t become showcases of his weaknesses but showcases of his strengths. Here are a few.
The Bishop Williamson controversy.
An unexpected international uproar erupted over Pope Benedict’s decision to lift the excommunications of four Society of St. Pius X bishops. And the uproar wasn’t about the validity of their episcopal ordinations. It was about the remarks one bishop had made in denial of the Holocaust.
The pain of the attacks on the Church and the Pope that resulted were acute, as the Vatican again and again explained that the Pope had been unaware of the Holocaust remarks.
But attacks on the Pope are not rare. On March 12, the whole controversy did produce something rare: a general letter from the Holy Father that was collegial, almost conversational, in style.
The letter was frank and forthright. The Pope was contrite about specific mistakes but firm about what was no mistake.
The letter may have the affect on the controversy other papal actions have had. Regensburg’s uproar led to unprecedented Vatican-Muslim dialogue; an American media fulminating outrage about sex abuse before Benedict’s U.S. visit ended up impressed with his candor and caring afterward. The excommunications story may have started out suggesting that Benedict was out of touch. In the end, it showed him to be more personable than we knew.
Father Maciel and the Legion of Christ.
Benedict’s pastoral approach is a great help amid the turmoil caused by the news about the serious misconduct of Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement. (That news which was especially painful to the Register; we are published by Circle Media, which is affiliated with the Legion).
In 2006, following an investigation, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith invited Father Maciel “to a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing all public ministry.” More recently it became clear that he had a relationship with a woman and fathered a child.
The Holy See’s response has been to order an apostolic visitation of the Legion. But in ordering it, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone again showed Benedict’s pastoral touch:
“The Holy Father is aware of the noble ideals that inspire you and the fortitude and prayerful spirit with which you are facing the current vicissitudes, and he encourages you to continue seeking the good of the Church and society by means of your own distinctive initiatives and institutions,” said Cardinal Bertone. “You can always count on the help of the Holy See, so that with truth and transparency, in a climate of fraternal and constructive dialogue, you will overcome the present difficulties.”
The Africa visit.
Benedict’s ability to see — and draw out — the best in people was also on display in his trip to Africa.
The trip was really made up of two stories. One was the story Americans and Europeans saw. In that story, the Pope spoke about AIDS and condoms on the plane, and what he did after the plane landed was an afterthought.
The other story was the real story, the one people who saw the Holy Father in Africa experienced. This was the story of an unprecedented outpouring of love and affection from the African people.
Giant crowds gathered to see the Pope; they were energized by and energizing for the Holy Father. The Holy Father spoke forthrightly about the difficulties in Africa, and called the nation, beset by AIDS and economic woes, a “continent of hope.” More than a million people attended his last Mass in Africa.
The AIDS comments.
That’s not to say that the Holy Father’s comments about AIDS didn’t reflect his pastoral touch.
His is the truly loving response to the epidemic. He said the hard, true thing that saves lives. But that’s not all he said. “I would say that this problem of AIDS cannot be overcome with advertising slogans,” he told reporters on the plane. “If the soul is lacking, if Africans do not help one another, the scourge cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem. The solution can only come through a twofold commitment: firstly, the humanization of sexuality … and secondly, true friendship, above all with those who are suffering.”
Year of the Priest.
The Year of the Priest is an example of Pope Benedict’s specifically papal pastoral care. Many of us associated the practice of declaring special “years” for the Church a John Paul practice. He declared a special Marian year, the Great Jubilee Year 2000 and the three years leading up to it, and then the Year of the Rosary and the Year of the Eucharist.
Pope Benedict is on track to outdo him.
He declared the Year of St. Paul and now, the Year of the Priest. Not cowed by attacks on the priesthood, his response is to promote what is beautiful and necessary about it.
There is much else that could be mentioned. Pope Benedict XVI’s brief encounter with Nancy Pelosi serves as a model of the shepherd reprimanding politicians who have gone astray. He spoke to the moral roots of the economic crisis on several occasions, most recently in a letter to Britain’s prime minister in response to the G20 summit. His appointment of Archbishop Timothy Dolan to lead the Archdiocese of New York was inspired.
Don’t underestimate Pope Benedict XVI. Or, better, don’t underestimate the force that compels the Church: Christ himself. That, after all, is the lesson of Easter.