Pope’s 2009: Another Big Year

The year 2008 was huge for Pope Benedict XVI. But wait until you see his plans for 2009.

The Year of Our Lord 2009 promises to be an especially interesting and eventful one for Pope Benedict XVI, with possibly two landmark trips, a new encyclical, leadership changes in the Roman Curia, and a likely meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.

The Holy Father is scheduled to make his first visit to Africa this year, to Cameroon to take part in preparations for a meeting of African bishops scheduled for October at the Vatican. No specific dates have been officially announced, but the second leg of his journey, to Angola to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the country’s evangelization, is expected to take place March 20-23.

Benedict can expect a joyful welcome: Catholicism has dramatically expanded over the past 100 years in Africa, which is enjoying a booming number of vocations and offers much hope. But the continent also presents many challenges for the Church, not least in terms of social justice and inculturation, all of which will be analyzed in depth during this fall’s Synod for Africa.

The eyes of the world will then turn to the Pope’s next major trip: to the Holy Land.

As the Register went to press, the visit was hanging in the balance due to the fighting in Gaza. Speaking to reporters at the end of December, papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the Vatican was following the situation closely but that it seemed “premature to say this incident is a determining or definitive factor.” Father Lombardi added: “The Pope wants to make this trip,” and he stressed that plans are well under way.

If it goes ahead as planned, reports indicate it will take place May 8-15 and include stops in Amman, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem. The visit will probably be “the highlight of 2009,” according to papal biographer George Weigel.

The trip will be especially sensitive: Pope Benedict will meet members of the Palestinian Authority (not Hamas) in Bethlehem and visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem — particularly poignant in view of the Holy Father’s German nationality. His addresses will contain many calls for peace in the region and for solidarity with Christians in the Holy Land, who are facing many hardships and emigrating in large numbers.

The Vatican is downplaying any political significance of the trip and is stressing its spiritual importance as a pilgrimage. It is also hoping that the visit will ease recent tensions with Israeli and Jewish leaders.

Pope Pius XII’s record in saving Jews during World War II remains a hotly contested issue among some Jewish leaders, despite evidence that suggests he probably saved more Jewish lives than any other religious or political leader of that time.

Benedict’s long-awaited and frequently delayed first social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth), is expected to be published this year, incorporating analysis of the current financial crisis.

Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, predicts it will appear in early 2009, but the truth is no one but the Holy Father really knows when it will be published.

Also possible this year is the eagerly awaited second volume of the Pope’s book, Jesus of Nazareth, covering the Passion and Resurrection, and Benedict’s post-synodal exhortation on the word of God.

This year will also see significant changes in a number of senior positions in the Vatican. At least three cardinals are expected to step down having reached, or exceeded, the retiring age of 75. These include Cardinals Martino, Javier Lozano Barragan (head of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Health Care Workers), and Walter Kasper (head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity). As these appointments are made and quite a number of other cardinals around the world retire, the need for a consistory will become pressing and will most likely take place in the fall.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, will also celebrate his 75th birthday in January and is expected to request standing down at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, possible liturgical changes could include changing the position of the sign of peace during the Mass. This year might also see the new English translation of the ordinary form of the Mass finally approved.

Progress in Catholic relations with Muslims and the Orthodox is likely to continue. Special attention will focus on the new Russian Orthodox patriarch, to be elected by June and expected to be Metropolitan Kirill of Kaliningrad.

As for interesting papal visitors, Barack Obama will be the one to watch. He is expected to call in at the Vatican while attending a G8 meeting on the Italian island of Maddalena in early July.

However, the incoming president may choose to wait until a new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See is in place — something that sources say is not likely to happen for some time.

The incumbent ambassador, Mary Ann Glendon, leaves Jan. 19 after a very busy and widely praised year in the post.

If they do meet, and Obama presses ahead with anti-life legislation, they will have much to talk about, according to Weigel.

“If the Obama administration tries to remove conscience-clause protections for Catholic health-care professionals and institutions in the United States,” he said, “we could very well see a papal challenge to the new administration — which is likely in any event, given what the Obama administration will attempt in the field of so-called ‘reproductive rights’ at the United Nations and in other international fora.”

For his part, the Pope made it known, during his annual address to the Roman Curia shortly before Christmas, that his primary focus this year will be the drive to proclaim the Gospel, energetically and unapologetically, throughout the world during the remainder of the Pauline Year, always relying confidently on the power of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church.

“The missionary spirit of the Church is nothing but the impulse to communicate the joy that has been given to us [by the Holy Spirit]”, the Pope said. “That such joy may always be alive in us and thus irradiate the world in its tribulations — that is my wish at the end of this year.”

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.