Benedict’s First Year

VATICAN CITY — Imagine leading the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, and having to do so after the historic leadership of Pope John Paul the Great.

The mere idea of taking on the role, Pope Benedict XVI said soon after last year’s conclave, hit him like a guillotine; he felt “quite dizzy” at the thought and prayed to God to give the task to someone else. But perhaps because of this acute awareness of the awesome responsibility resting on his shoulders, the Holy Father has won many hearts and minds in his first year as Pope.

For those who knew him personally, he has matched their expectations as someone who would be a wise, eloquent, and humble Successor of Peter.

For those whose image of him was molded by the media — as a “hard-line” defender of the faith — he is something of a surprise: They did not expect him to be so conciliatory or collegial, to reach out to other Christians and non-Christians, and to produce his first encyclical on the subject of love.

In summing up his first year, the Associated Press said he surprised Catholics across the theological spectrum by meeting with his harshest liberal critic, Father Hans Küng, as well as the excommunicated ultraconservative Bishop Bernard Fellay, who heads a Swiss-based schismatic movement founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

“What he’s managed to do in his first year is change his image, or rather let the world come to see who he really is,” said longtime friend Divine Word Father Vincent Twomey, a professor of moral theology at the Pontifical University in Maynooth, Ireland. “He’s had a hard act to follow, but very cleverly he said he’d do it in his own way and his own way is one of ‘humble greatness’ — it’s his humility that has captured people.”

And while he has forged his own particular style, he has also provided much-needed continuity.

“The assurances and sturdiness of the Church is still very much in place,” said Legionary Father Thomas Williams, dean of moral theology at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University. “There was such a smooth transition due to the moral gravitas, sense of steadiness and depth of this man.”

To illustrate the universal appeal of Pope Benedict, the Associated Press quoted two Jesuits. One, Father Joseph Fessio, is a longtime friend of the Pope. The other, Father Thomas Reese, left America magazine shortly after Pope Benedict’s election after the magazine had been at odds with the Church over its coverage of doctrinal issues.

Father Fessio, chancellor of Ave Maria University and founder of Ignatius Press, pointed to Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love).

“What other pope in history made his major encyclical on erotic love?” asked Father Fessio.

“Now we have the ‘panzer cardinal,’ the ‘dour Bavarian,’ ‘God’s Rottweiler’ defending love!” Father Fessio was quoted saying. “What a paradox!”

Father Reese also told the wire service about the paradox of Benedict.

“When he was elected, the left was very worried and the right was delighted, and both of them expected him to come in like a gangbuster and start an attack cleaning up the Church, coming in like the Grand Inquisitor,” said Father Reese.

“Of course he totally surprised people that way because his personality, which is quite charming, came through as a charming Bavarian rather than an authoritarian Prussian.”

Scholar Michael Novak told the Register, “In his first year, Benedict has been a far more popular Pope and shown a far more winning personality than anyone had expected, and at the same time he has more than met expectations that, of all the cardinals, he had the most diamond-sharp and richly stocked theological mind.”

He added, “There is still a feeling in Rome that several tough and dramatic decisions about personnel remain to be executed, although it is now clear that Benedict’s manner in such things is kindly, prudent and patient. To each decision, its own time.”

Several major themes of Benedict’s pontificate are developing: emphasis on the importance of truth, love and freedom; a desire to “return to the roots” of the Church and the traditions of the early Church fathers; and a willingness to reach out to other Christians, people of other faiths, and non-believers by highlighting areas upon which they can unite.

All these themes can be clearly seen in Benedict’s first encyclical — with love standing out.

“It’s not a surprise to me, or anyone who knew him, that love would be the theme of his ministry,” said Father Twomey, who in the 1960s was a student of then-Professor Ratzinger at the University of Regensburg. “That vision is in his previous thoughts and writings, and he’s drawing people’s attention to that vision.”

The Pope is also showing himself to be a keen listener, consulting heads of Vatican offices regularly and listening to those who oppose him as well as agree with him. Such attentiveness was on display at last year’s Synod on the Eucharist and last month’s consistory of cardinals.

“His first priority is to do what he does best: consulting,” said Father Twomey. “He’s showing the rest of the Church that this is the way forward, that the authoritarian and monarchical way of leading is gone.”

But the Holy Father also seizes every opportunity to shore up Catholic faith and identity. Authentic dialogue, he believes, can only be possible if one is confident and convinced of one’s own position, and that tolerance must not be at the expense of truth. When he met Muslims during World Youth Day in Cologne, for instance, the meeting took place not in a mosque but at the bishop’s residence with a large cross behind him.

He has also taken a firm line with Muslim-majority states that restrict religious freedom, making greater demands for reciprocity (granting Christians the same rights in Muslim states as Muslims enjoy in Christian states).

On a theological level, he has regularly made the point of contemplating the face of Christ, thereby underscoring the Christian concept of the person and human dignity that distinguishes the faith from other religions. Meanwhile, he has also tried to strengthen the liturgy by encouraging better liturgical practice and advocating greater use of Latin.

 Some are disappointed that he hasn’t been more forceful and acted more quickly in reforming the Curia, but others believe this is not a great priority for him.

“He will do what he can in this area,” said Paul Badde, Rome correspondent for the German Die Welt newspaper, “but he doesn’t have much time and so will only focus on a few, essential issues.”

Catholic News Service’s John Thavis has said that, compared to his predecessor’s early years, Pope Benedict appears to be going at a slower pace. All the same, Thavis pointed out that the list of first-year accomplishments for Benedict is impressive:

•      In February, he named 15 new cardinals and convened them March 23 for a discussion on any topic they chose.

•      Last fall, he embarked on a reconciliation effort with Lefebvrite traditionalists, meeting with Bishop Fellay and convening top Vatican officials to discuss proposed solutions.

•      In October, he opened up the Synod of Bishops to free discussion, joining in the debate at times on such topics as the priest shortage and priestly celibacy.

•      In August, he presided over World Youth Day celebrations in his native Germany, winning the respect of young people with a serious demeanor and some thought-provoking talks. He also met with ecumenical leaders, Muslims, government ministers, bishops and seminarians.

•      Although not billed as much of a traveler, he has scheduled four foreign visits this year — to Poland, Spain, Germany and Turkey.

•      He has engaged in lengthy question-and-answer sessions with groups of priests and surprised other audiences by setting aside his prepared text and improvising.

•      Late last year, he reviewed the major documents of the Second Vatican Council 40 years after its close. Then, in a major talk to the Roman Curia, he explained the right way and wrong way to interpret the council’s teachings.

•      He moved quietly last summer to encourage the successful appointment of new Chinese bishops acceptable to both their government and the Vatican.

•      Throughout the year, he presided over ecumenical liturgies and met with a number of ecumenical groups, pledging continued efforts toward Christian unity.

•      He also met several times with Jewish leaders, affirming the Church’s commitment to dialogue and reflecting on the Holocaust. In June, he delayed indefinitely the beatification of an Italian priest because of alleged anti-Semitic writings.

•      In December, he named a new apostolic nuncio to the United States, a veteran diplomat, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, and, in the most noteworthy of several recent U.S. appointments, named Archbishop George Niederauer to San Francisco.

As Benedict enters the second year of his pontificate, many predict a surge in activity. But the pace is likely to continue to be measured and low-key.

“You can pull down a house in a day but it takes months to rebuild it,” said Father Twomey. “To rebuild the Church slowly is Pope Benedict’s vision for the Church.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.