When Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II suffered a catalogue of bad news in 1992, she described that year as her annus horribilis.
Such a “horrible year” appeared to be the lot of the Holy Father and the Church in 2010, although matters substantially improved towards the year’s end.
As the Year for Priests reached its halfway point in January, a torrent of clerical sex-abuse cases began to spew forth across Europe, set off by the damning results of government investigations into the Church in Ireland. The universal Church was to suffer sustained and often justified attacks — worse than the U.S. Church suffered in 2002 — and it led many to wonder how the Vatican and the Holy Father would cope with such a blow to the Church’s moral authority.
Benedict XVI would later compare the abuse crisis to a “tremendous [volcano] cloud of filth” sent by the devil to coincide with the special year dedicated to priests. That cloud would hang over the Church for a good part of 2010 and even now it understandably hasn’t gone away.
Yet the Pope soldiered on and it was arguably his trips this year — all of which were in Europe — that did much to help defuse the anger. His calls for repentance and the need for humility struck a chord with many inside and outside the Church, and his frequent expressions of sorrow, notably in Malta, Portugal and Britain, were turning points in the crisis — perhaps more so than the frank and heartfelt pastoral letter he sent to Irish Catholics in March.
But beyond the crisis, this year — when the Church celebrated Benedict XVI’s first five years as the Successor of Peter — actually had many successes. And nearly always these could be put down to the Holy Father’s public appearances and personal character.
The year began with the Pope’s Jan. 17 visit to Rome’s main synagogue — only the second by a pontiff and one that followed a spate of recent controversies in Catholic-Jewish relations. Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee, afterwards described the visit as “a genuine milestone, putting many fears and suspicions to rest and reinvigorating the historic transformation of this relationship in our times.”
In April, the Pope visited Malta, arguably the most Catholic country in the world. Half the island’s people turned out to cheer him during the nadir of the abuse crisis, offering the Pope and the Church some timely encouragement. Soon after, as the real volcanic cloud over parts of Europe dispersed, Benedict XVI made a pilgrimage to Portugal and the shrine at Fatima, where he was again given an enthusiastic reception. The same was true during his June visit to Cyprus to prepare the way for the Synod on the Middle East in October — a meeting that resulted in a resounding call for greater religious freedom in the region, and which was largely praised by observers.
Benedict XVI also made a relatively large number of visits within Italy in 2010, including to Turin, where he prayed in front of the Holy Shroud, exhibited for a short period this year, and to Sicily, where he joined a regional meeting of families and young people.
On a more personal note for the Pope, this was also the year in which he announced he had completed the second volume of his work Jesus of Nazareth (to be published during Lent 2011), dedicated to the Passion and the Resurrection, and that he had started the third and final volume, on the infancy narratives.
But as far as papal books are concerned, this year will be perhaps best remembered for Light of the World. It followed the Holy Father’s announcement that he was creating a new Pontifical Council on the New Evangelization and, as if to lead the way, he became the first pope to agree to have a series of very personal sit-down interviews with a journalist.
The result of six hour-long interviews with German author Peter Seewald, the book won wide acclaim. However, the media-driven controversy and press misrepresentation concerning his comments on condoms and AIDS appeared to create confusion to the disadvantage of the Church and the delight of those who want to see changes in Church teaching on contraception. Contrary to widespread perceptions, however, authoritative commentators insisted the Pope had not changed the Church’s moral position on condom use.
But there was much more to the book than this. Many found it an enthralling read, offering for the first time a very personal glimpse into how a pope experiences life as the Successor of Peter. He spoke of his hopes and concerns for the Church and the world, offered his candid opinions on a wide range of issues, and shared his reactions to being elected pope and daily life in the Apostolic Palace. The book illustrated “his courage and serenity in a very direct way,” said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver.
Many had earlier witnessed that courage, during Benedict’s historic state visit to Britain in September. Despite widespread fears of protests and even an outlandish stunt attempt to have him arrested for the clerical sex-abuse crisis, the visit was widely viewed as a triumph. Many were disarmed by his mere presence, humility and message, as Vatican officials had predicted. The Rev. George Carey, former Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, went so far as to say that “he came; he saw; he conquered.” Despite a rising tide of secularism in Spain, the Pope also pulled off a successful if quieter and shorter visit to Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona in November.
The year had tempestuous beginnings, but drew to a close mostly peacefully. Even the Wikileaks revelations failed to inflict any real damage on the Vatican, revealing little that wasn’t already known. It rounded off something of a roller-coaster year, one that presented the Pope and the Vatican with many serious challenges.
Yet the Holy Father pulled through, and just how he did so is perhaps best explained in Light of the World:
“One realizes very quickly that it is an immense office,” Benedict tells Seewald. “If one knows that one already has a great responsibility as a chaplain, as a pastor, as a professor, then it is easy to extrapolate what an immense burden is imposed on the one who bears responsibility for the whole Church. But then, of course, one must be all the more aware that one does not do it alone. That one does it, on the one hand, with God’s help and, on the other hand, in a great collaboration.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.