Benedict and the Papacy

Benedict XVI is Peter’s successor, not John Paul’s.

A year ago, it seemed that John Paul had changed the papacy forever. Papal traditions for him were a like a carpenter’s toolbox — he grabbed the ones he needed, added what wasn’t there and left the others in the box.

Symbols like the papal coat of arms and the Holy Door were old and arcane. John Paul took them up and transformed them, using the coat of arms to deliver his Marian motto “Totus Tuus” and turning the Holy Door into a powerful symbol of renewal for the entire Church. He urgently needed to reach the youth and priests, so he invented World Youth Day and the annual Holy Thursday letter to priests, and added these tools to the box.

By using the papacy as he saw fit, John Paul consternated Vatican handlers and energized followers around the globe.

But he also put what looked like an impossible burden on his successor. The question would inevitably hover: Would the new pope try to imitate John Paul’s ways or distance himself from them? Either way, the next pope seemed destined to stay in the shadow of his predecessor.

Pope Benedict’s greatest accomplishment after one year as Pope seems to be that he has shown that the papacy was always far larger even than John Paul the Great.

Some of the traditions that John Paul retired, it seems, will never return. Benedict has declined to revive the papal tiara and other trappings of power. But he has restored others.

For instance, Benedict returned to the coat of arms tradition that popes have always used, but declined the John Pauline innovation of a papal motto, saying that his papacy stood for any and every expression of faith, hope and charity that is authentic. Similarly, he has returned to many of the old traditions of papal dress — red shoes, a stocking cap when it’s cold — simply, it seems, because that’s what popes wear.

Benedict will continue John Paul’s World Youth Day tradition, but has chosen not to continue the Holy Thursday letters to priests. In such things, the Holy Father seems to be asking himself not, “What would John Paul do?” but “What should the successor of Peter do?”

And in doing so, he has reminded us all that the papacy isn’t a human invention that draws its power from the persona of the pope, but a divine institution that draws its power from grace.

This has not gone unnoticed in the media. Time magazine reporter Jeff Israel noted it in August when Pope Benedict visited Cologne’s synagogue during World Youth Day.

He described what happened after the Pope’s entry and greeting. After a brief ceremony and remarks from a Holocaust survivor, the Holy Father spoke.

“But there was something happening that went beyond words,” wrote Israel. “It was in the way the Pope listened so intently to his hosts. It was the warm, two-hand embrace he shared with the young rabbi. It was in the somber cadence of his voice as he recounted Nazi atrocities, and the utter silence in the synagogue to hear his every breath.”

Israel said it only later dawned on him what was so powerful about the Pope’s presentation — powerful enough to earn a standing ovation from his hosts.

“Why didn’t Papa Ratzinger make even one small reference to his own experience?” he wrote. “John Paul II spoke about his own experiences every chance he could, about knowing Jews who were deported from his hometown in Poland. But perhaps Benedict, beyond a basic human shyness, also sees his role differently than his predecessor. He doesn’t want to impose his own persona on the pontificate. He doesn’t want his life’s story to represent the Church’s. He wants his words to educate as much as inspire.”

We thank God for Pope John Paul II. In him, we had a charismatic leader reawakening the Church at a time when we desperately needed that. But now we are grateful for Benedict, quietly educating the Church in the kind of mature faith he spoke about at the opening of the conclave — the “adult faith” that doesn’t depend on inspiration and charisma but on abiding friendship with Jesus.

John Paul’s signature phrase “Be not afraid!” thrilled us. But Benedict’s is just as full of hope. “The Church is alive,” he has said, “and the Church is young.”

He’s right. We are young. And we’re grateful to have him for our teacher, helping the Church continue grow into what God wants us to be.