VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI recently passed his first 100 days as the Successor of St. Peter — a period in which there has been much continuity with the historic pontificate of John Paul II but also distinct differences in style and priorities.
Since his election, the Pope has been keen to downplay the Chair of Peter in an attempt to give a clearer view of Christ. His papal liturgies, rich in symbolism, have sought to fill the faithful with awe and reverence for the divinity of Jesus.
“The purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men,” the Holy Father reminded the faithful at his inauguration Mass April 24. “And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is.”
Benedict‘s approach to the papacy likely stems in part from his own reserved personality. Yet it's clear it also conforms to his theological beliefs.
“Benedict has long been aware of the tendency in European theology to overemphasize the humanity of Christ and fail to recognize the divinity of Christ,” explained Father Vincent Twomey, professor of moral theology at St. Patrick's Pontifical University in Maynooth, Ireland. “I do think he will give greater stress to the divinity of Christ and, with that, to the whole mystery of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Father Twomey, an academic acquaintance of the Pope for 34 years since being a former student of Benedict at the University of Regensburg, believes the Pope takes this line because he “is more a theologian than John Paul II.” His predecessor, Father Twomey added, “was a great theologian as well, but he was more a philosopher — that was his strength.”
Father Brian Johnstone, a systematic moral theologian at the Pontifical Alphonsian Academy in Rome, believes Benedict's theological approach to the papacy can be traced back to his writings on St. Bonaventure.
“[Benedict] did not accept the Thomist idea of the autonomy of philosophy or the autonomy of science but rather a wisdom based on faith in Christ as the ultimate source of truth,” he said.
“He does seem to believe, quite explicitly, that you cannot hope to find moral truth without, ultimately, faith in Christ, though he is respectful of other views,” Father Johnstone added.
For all that, Benedict is not regarded as any more centered on Christ than his predecessor, with whom he collaborated so closely for 23 years as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“John Paul II was extremely Christocentric, as can be seen in his first three encyclicals,” said Msgr. Michael Magee, a Rome-based biblical scholar and liturgist. “What there may be is more focus placed on the transcendence of the faith, accentuating the transcendent dimension, and ideas that have come to light are an indication of that.”
Most observers expect that this focus on the transcendent will be reflected in the liturgy. So far, there have been few changes made in that direction except in the Holy Father's own papal ceremonies, but changes could start as soon as the fall.
“The liturgy has to recover its sense of mystery,” Father Twomey said. “If you have a liturgy that has Jesus kind of having a party with his friends, it's a very humanistic approach. The whole sense of mystery, awe and wonder simply goes out of it.”
Father Twomey believes Benedict's own liturgies, which emphasize awe and mystery, will “encourage” more general change. “That will strengthen the sense of mystery, which is linked to the centrality of Christ, Son of God and son of Mary,” he said.
In the context of the anticipated liturgical reforms, some Vatican commentators predict changes in the Office of Papal Liturgical Celebrations during the coming months.
“Pope John Paul II was very strongly aware of the significance of culture and the need to incorporate cultures in the liturgy,” Father Johnstone said, whereas Benedict prefers liturgies that “reflect the natural implications of faith.”
Another significant development in Benedict's early papacy has been an emphasis on ecumenism. Advances have already been made, with Orthodox Church representatives agreeing in late June, after meeting with the Pope, to resume theological dialogue this fall after a five-year suspension.
The official theological dialogue, which is carried out by a Catholic-Orthodox international mixed commission and includes representatives of the Catholic Church and of the various Orthodox Churches, has been blocked since 2000, when disputes arose at a meeting in Maryland. The disputes were centered on the theological and canonical implications of Uniatism, the term used by the Orthodox regarding Christians in traditionally Orthodox countries that are in communion with Rome.
The Pope has also highlighted the importance of interfaith dialogue, pledging to visit a synagogue and meet with Muslim religious leaders during this month's visit to World Youth Day in Germany.
The Holy Father has placed a heavy emphasis on improving diplomatic relations with Asian countries, particularly China and Vietnam, which do not have formal contacts with the Holy See. And, like John Paul II, he has also spoken forcefully against secularism while carefully steering clear of direct involvement in political disputes.
There has never been a pope with such a public record of his thoughts, so few have been surprised that Benedict's papal style is consistent with what he followed as a renowned theology professor in Germany and later in Rome as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Benedict phrases his statements carefully and precisely and, on matters of doctrine, he remains firm and uncompromising — unafraid to proclaim unpopular truths and prepared to engage in debate with his opponents.
But he is also engaging with the public more than expected and has developed good relations with the media in his first 100 days.
“In carrying out his ministry, the new Pope knows his task is to make Christ's light shine out before the men and women of today: not his own light, but Christ's,” Benedict told his brother cardinals the day after his election. In his first 100 days, few would deny he has sought to do just that.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome. (Zenit contributed to this story.)