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Pope Benedict XVI's Emerging Papacy: 'A Service to Joy'
By Robert Mickens
Those who thought they knew Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger very well are seeing new sides of him since his election as pope.


A Clearer Profile Emerges
The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber
The Election and First Days on the Job
Pope Benedict XVI's Program for the Church
In the Shadow of Karol the Great
Collegiality Vital
Fewer Documents
What Can We Expect?
Pope Benedict XVI in His Own Words



WHEN CARDINAL JORGE MEDINA ESTÉVEZ emphatically enunciated the name “R-A-T-Z-I-N-G-E-R” from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on April 19 last year, a group of American seminarians dressed in Roman collars and black varsity jackets pumped their clench-fisted arms in the air like jackhammers. “Yeah!” the 20-somethings screamed tribally, as if their school had just won the national football championship.

Many others in that swelling crowd in St. Peter’s Square also voiced their pleasure— if somewhat less exuberantly—at the announcement of the new pope, who chose the name Benedict XVI.

But also huddled amidst the crowd on that cloud-covered afternoon were other Catholics, most of them older than the seminarians, who were obviously not as delighted by the news that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been elected Bishop of Rome.

Several Vatican officials a few paces ahead of me, near the great steps leading up to the basilica, were visibly stunned, despite their best efforts to remain poker-faced. And next to me a retired bishop, identifiable by his advanced age and the simple Vatican Council II ring on his finger, clutched a small, wooden rosary in his wrinkled hand and wept. “How could this happen?” the sobbing prelate asked repeatedly in disbelief.

The election of the 78-year-old Cardinal Ratzinger, one of the most noted theologians of our time and the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), was greeted with jubilation by some and confusion by others. His name and reputation—rightly or wrongly—had increasingly become synonymous over the last two decades with conservative Catholicism.

Those who lionized him last April were individuals and groups that, in good faith, wanted the Vatican to crack down on dissent, shore up lax discipline and correct ambiguous teaching.

Catholics of a more progressive stripe, on the other hand, were often fiercely critical of the “Grand Inquisitor,” as Father Hans Küng, one of their heroes, had labeled him. These Church liberals perceived Joseph Ratzinger as having provided the theological backbone for what they saw as Pope John Paul II’s program of suffocating the true spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65)—an event at which Küng, Ratzinger and Karol Wojtyla had all played significant roles.

On September 24 at Castel Gandolfo, Benedict XVI had a four-hour meeting with Hans Küng. On August 29, the pope had a private meeting with Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X. Bishop Fellay was ordained a bishop without Pope John Paul II’s permission in 1988.

A Clearer Profile Emerges

Several months after his election, we have all seen the emergence of a Benedict XVI who has defied the expectations—and fears—of even the most astute observers on both sides of the current Church division. The new pope has shown a much more attractive and gracious persona than his detractors ascribed to him when he was CDF head. In the past several months, the world has slowly begun to warm up to a Joseph Ratzinger who presents an authentic and joyful gentleness.

Despite even benign temptations, it is unfair to judge the new pope by his past. “He’s no longer specialized,” said Belgium’s Cardinal Godfried Danneels at the end of the conclave. “He now has to be pastor of everyone and everything.” As one veteran Vatican watcher commented sagely, “There’s a good reason why popes change their names.”


The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber

Joseph Ratzinger was born at Marktl am Inn, in the Diocese of Passau (Germany) on April 16, 1927, to a family of modest means. His father was a policeman and his mother a housewife. Joseph, his older brother (Georg, also a priest) and their sister, Maria, who died in 1991, grew up in what L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, described as a “Mozartian” environment. The strong Catholic identity of Bavaria, especially evident by its numerous Benedictine monasteries, made a deep impact on the future pope.

According to the official biographical notice, Joseph’s childhood years were not easy. “The faith and education he received at home prepared him for the harsh experience of those years during which the Nazi regime pursued a hostile attitude towards the Catholic Church,” it says. Eventually, Joseph Ratzinger was conscripted into an antiaircraft unit of the German Army near the end of World War II and was briefly held prisoner by American forces.

After the war he entered the seminary and quickly displayed extraordinary theological gifts, being ordained in 1951 and two years later receiving a doctorate from the University of Munich. After further studies, he began a 25-year teaching career at universities in Freising, Bonn, Münster, Tübingen and Regensburg.

The young Father Ratzinger was a noted peritus (expert) at all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In 1977 he was appointed by Pope Paul VI as archbishop of Munich and Freising, in addition to being named a cardinal. Pope John Paul II called him to Rome in November of 1981 to be prefect of the CDF, the post Cardinal Ratzinger held when he was elected the 264th successor of St. Peter.

The Election and First Days on the Job

“After the great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord.” With these words an ecstatic, but nervous-looking, Benedict XVI prefaced his first Urbi et Orbi (to the city and to the world) blessing, immediately following his election as pope. People who had, up to now, crassly drawn their knowledge of Cardinal Ratzinger from such inelegant caricatures of him as “God’s Rottweiler” or the “Panzer Kardinal” were surprised to hear the new pope describe himself as “simple and humble.” Such a portrayal did not exactly fit their image of the Bavarian theologian-prefect.

But immediately people started to decipher the significance of the new pope’s choice of name: Benedict XVI. The last pope to take the name of Europe’s first patron was elected in 1914 and served slightly more than eight years.

Joseph Ratzinger was born five years after Benedict XV’s death in 1922. Pope Benedict XVI told the cardinals after his election that he chose this name because the last Benedict had been “a man of peace who served only briefly.” No one questioned this explanation from a man who had just celebrated his 78th birthday.

On deeper reflection, however, it became more apparent that the choice also had much, or even more, to do with the fifth-century St. Benedict and the fundamental role his monastic movement played in rebuilding Europe after the Roman Empire had collapsed.

Pope Benedict XVI's Program for the Church

In the first weeks of his pontificate, and after, Pope Benedict XVI smiled broadly and spoke often of the “joy of being a believer in Christ.” From the very start, he demonstrated a sort of shy confidence and serene joy that contrasted (or some might say complemented) the assertiveness of his predecessor. Benedict XVI’s style and manner have been strikingly similar to that of the delicate and erudite Paul VI, a lover of the fine arts and classical music, than to the style of the robust and charismatic John Paul II, who was sometimes called “God’s Athlete.”

“And now, at this moment, weak servant of God that I am, I must assume this enormous task, which truly exceeds all human capacity. How will I be able to do it?” he asked on April 24 at his installation Mass in St. Peter’s Square. Many people initially believed that, by electing the Vatican’s long-standing “enforcer of the faith,” the cardinals had chosen a man with fixed notions who would swiftly carry out a rigorous program of restoration.

But Pope Benedict corrected them: “My real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord, to be guided by him, so that he himself will lead the Church at this hour of our history.”

Several days later when he took possession of his cathedral, St. John Lateran, he said, “The pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word.”

For his papal coat of arms, Pope Benedict replaced the tiara with a simple bishop’s miter. Just as the shortlived Pope John Paul I chose not to have a papal coronation, now Benedict XVI further distanced the papacy from any monarchical claims by removing this vestige of imperial power.

In the Shadow of Karol the Great

“The importance of the Bishop of Rome has increased immensely,” Pope Benedict told Polish television on October 16, in a rare papal interview. He said with praise that this change was due to Pope John Paul II, whom he had served for almost 25 years. In almost every speech, the new pope refers to the “beloved Pope John Paul”—to the delight of the crowds.

Some believed that Benedict XVI showed his deep admiration for John Paul II by allowing his cause for beatification to be opened in record time. The gesture, however, was also shrewd politically, sending a clear signal to the late pope’s adoring throngs that his legacy and works would be secure in the new pontificate.

Despite his personal devotion to John Paul, Pope Benedict shows no signs of following his style. Where the late pope gave unwavering—and some would say overly simplified—answers to even complicated questions, the new pope admits that solutions to problems sometimes need careful study and consultation.

“The pope is not an oracle; he is infallible on the rarest of occasions, as we know,” a relaxed Benedict XVI told a group of priests in northern Italy, where he was vacationing in July. Acknowledging that the Church was moving through some painful moments, he admitted, “I do not think that there is any system for making a rapid change. We must go on, we must go through this tunnel, this underpass, patiently, in the certainty that Christ is the answer...but we should also deepen this certainty and the joy of knowing it and thus truly be ministers of the future of the world, of the future of every person.”

Less than a month later, while attending World Youth Day in Cologne, he spoke candidly at a closed-door meeting with Germany’s bishops. “It is worrying to us all that, despite the age-old teaching of religion, the knowledge of religion is meager....What can we do?” he asked. “I do not know,” he then confessed. It is difficult to imagine his predecessor admitting he did not have the answer.

Collegiality Vital

During the several days of discussions before going into the conclave, many cardinals said the Church was in need of a pope who would more seriously consult the world’s bishops. A better exercise of collegiality—or shared governance between the pope and the rest of the episcopal college—was a requirement for the new pope, many of them said openly.

After they elected Pope Benedict XVI, a number of cardinals pointed out that Cardinal Ratzinger, as dean of the College of Cardinals, had chaired the pre-conclave meetings and had been an excellent and active listener. “This impressed us,” Britain’s Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor said afterwards, reflecting the feelings of many others.

“Your spiritual closeness, your enlightened advice, and your effective cooperation will be a gift for me,” Pope Benedict told the cardinals in an audience with them three days after his election. And since then he has had meetings with all the heads of the Vatican offices, as well as many bishops and cardinals from around the world. A senior cardinal, who heads a diocese and who has already had three such audiences, said the new pope is very eager to listen.

The first test of his eagerness to work closely with the bishops, many believed, was last October’s World Synod of Bishops, an institution created by Pope Paul VI in 1965 to facilitate collegiality. Though Pope John Paul II had convened the 2005 synod before his death, Pope Benedict XVI soon ratified the decision, but decreased its length and added an hour of “open debate” at the end of each day’s session. The idea was to get the bishops, long criticized for merely mimicking the pope’s own thoughts and ideas, to discuss, debate and think.

Despite his best efforts, participants at the three-week meeting said a handful of powerful Vatican cardinals dominated the discussions. Others said the theological level of the discourse was “embarrassingly low.”

For the theologian-pope, this lack of high-quality men in the episcopate will be a major challenge. Sources inside the Vatican say he is being careful to appoint new bishops, all too aware that any attempts to bolster effective collegiality depend on the theological acumen and pastoral wisdom of the men who wear miters. It is still too early to see how Pope Benedict will develop this goal.

Fewer Documents

One thing seems certain: He will not be generating the dizzying number of papal documents that characterized John Paul II’s long pontificate. “My personal mission is not to issue many new documents, but to ensure that his documents are assimilated, because they are a rich treasure; they are the authentic interpretation of Vatican II,” Pope Benedict said last October in an interview on Polish TV, broadcast in connection with the anniversary of John Paul II’s 1978 election as pope.

Indeed, there have been far fewer papal documents in these first several months, but insiders say that the new pope is doing most of the writing himself. His homilies are theologically dense and merit careful study.

When Pope Benedict was elected, many were braced for a new Vatican offensive against the “dictatorship of relativism,” an expression then-Cardinal Ratzinger used during his homily at Mass on the morning the conclave began. Some expected there would be more papal condemnations of abortion, artificial contraception, same-sex marriage and other moral issues. But, so far, the pope has been relatively silent on these “hot-button” issues, and has preferred to employ a strategy (one might call it) of positive reinforcement.

As one long-serving German in the Roman Curia told me, “Putting Ratzinger at the CDF was like making a forward the goalkeeper, while his natural propensity has always been to propose rather than defend.” That analogy seems to be at least partially true.

What Can We Expect?

Pope Benedict has inherited a Church that faces many internal problems, such as a dwindling number of priests, a lack of reception or understanding of Church teaching (especially on a number of moral issues), alarming signs of catechetical illiteracy among many Catholics, polarization born of a breakdown in civil and charitable debate among believers who disagree—and the list goes on.

This Church is also struggling as never before to remain faithful to the Good News of Jesus in a changing world that often ridicules its core beliefs in transcendence, objective truth and the dignity of the human person made in the image of God. This is the Church and world in which Pope Benedict has been called to minister.

In an unscripted address to officials at the Vatican Secretariat of State last May, he said, “The purpose of all of our work, with all of its ramifications, is actually ultimately so that Christ’s gospel—as well as the joy of Redemption—may reach the world.”

Pope Benedict XVI in His Own Words

“The fact that the Lord knows how to work and to act even with inadequate instruments comforts me, and above all I entrust myself to your prayers.”
—April 19 (comments before his first public blessing as pope)

“The one who holds the office of the Petrine ministry must be aware that he is a frail and weak human being—just as his own powers are frail and weak—and is constantly in need of purification and conversion.”
—May 7 (homily on taking possession of St. John Lateran, his cathedral church in Rome)

“The vocation to love makes the human person an authentic image of God: Man and woman come to resemble God to the extent that they become loving people.”
—June 6 (address to the Ecclesial Diocesan Convention for the Vicariate of Rome)

“Life is precious and unique: It must always be respected and protected, also by proper and careful conduct on the roads.”
—June 26 (Angelus address)

“In contact with nature, individuals rediscover their proper dimension; they recognize that they are creatures but also unique, ‘capable of God’ since they are inwardly open to the Infinite.”
—July 17 (Angelus address in Les Combs, Italy)

“The world cannot live without God, the God of Revelation—and not just any God: We see how dangerous a cruel God, an untrue God can be—the God who showed us his face in Jesus Christ.”
—July 25 (address to priests of the Diocese of Aosta, Italy)

“[The Magi] had to learn that God is not as we usually imagine him to be. This was where their inner journey began. It started at the very moment when they knelt down before this child and recognized him as the promised King. But they still had to assimilate these joyful gestures internally. “They had to change their ideas about power, about God and about man, and in so doing, they also had to change themselves. Now they were able to see that God’s power is not like that of the powerful of this world. God’s ways are not as we imagine them or as we might wish them to be.”
—August 20 (address at the prayer vigil at Marienfeld Esplanade outside Cologne)

“Religion often becomes almost a consumer product. People choose what they like, and some are even able to make a profit from it. But religion sought on a ‘do-it-yourself’ basis cannot ultimately help us. It may be comfortable, but at times of crisis we are left to ourselves.”
—August 21 (homily at World Youth Day Mass at Marienfeld Esplanade)

“Faith is not merely the attachment to a complex of dogmas, complete in itself, that is supposed to satisfy the thirst for God, present in the human heart. On the contrary, it guides human beings on their way through time toward a God who is ever new in his infinity.”
—August 28 (Angelus address)

“The Lord said, ‘As often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me’ (cf. Matthew 25:40,45). In every suffering person, especially if he or she is little and defenseless, it is Jesus who welcomes us and is expecting our love.”
—September 30 (address to staff and patients at Rome’s Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital)

“Faith cannot be reduced to a private sentiment or, indeed, be hidden when it is inconvenient; it also implies consistency and a witness even in the public arena for the sake of human beings, justice and truth.”
—October 9 (Angelus address)

“I hope that for all of you the First Communion you have received in this Year of the Eucharist will be the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Jesus, the beginning of a journey together, because in walking with Jesus we do well and life becomes good.”
—October 15 (talk to children who had received First Communion in 2005)

“Adoration is recognizing that Jesus is my Lord, that Jesus shows me the way to take, and that I will live well only if I know the road that Jesus points out and follow the path he shows me.”
—October 15 (talk to children who had received First Communion in 2005)

“God is not a relentless sovereign who condemns the guilty but a loving father whom we must love, not for fear of punishment, but for his kindness, quick to forgive.”
—October 19 (address at his Wednesday general audience)

“I hope that the harmony of music and song, which knows no social or religious barriers, will be a constant invitation to believers and all people of good will to seek together the universal language of love that enables people to build a world of justice and solidarity, hope and peace.”
—October 20 (address after a concert in the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall)

Since 1986, Robert Mickens has lived in Rome. He worked for 11 years at Vatican Radio and now writes about the Vatican for The Tablet, a weekly magazine from London. Philosophy studies at St. Meinrad College (Indiana) preceded his theology work at the Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome).

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