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Posted July 18, 2005

The Latest from Rome

By John L. Allen, Jr.

Benedict XVI is on vacation this week in Les Combes di Introd, a small locality in the Val d'Aosta region in the Alps of northern Italy. He's staying in the same chalet , built by the Salesian religious order, that John Paul II used 10 times for brief summer breaks. The only public appearances on the pope's schedule are two Angelus addresses, July 17 and 24.

The pope will leave the Alps on July 28 to head for Castel Gandolfo, his summer residence overlooking Lake Albano. That respite will be interrupted by his August 18-21 trip to Cologne, Germany, for World Youth Day. I'll once again be on the papal plane for that trip.

This being Joseph Ratzinger, "vacation" does not mean idleness or leisure in the traditional sense. Unlike John Paul II, Benedict is not a man given to long walks in the mountains as a form of meditative prayer. Instead, he has shipped several cases of books and papers to the nine-room, two-story chalet in Les Combes as resources for his thinking and writing. Since his normal round of audiences, meetings with heads of state and curial officials, and other ceremonial duties are suspended, he has time to concentrate on shaping the main intellectual and administrative lines of his pontificate.

Some time ago, the pope made reference to this dimension of his break: "I can't wait to go on vacation, because I have much to think about."

By general agreement, the main tasks on the pope's agenda in Les Combes are the following:

First encyclical: In modern papacies, the encyclical has emerged as the most important instrument of teaching, and the first one of a pontificate is generally considered the "programmatic" encyclical, where the "big ideas" of the papacy are laid out. Paul VI's Ecclesiam Suam in 1964 was a meditation on the church, and Paul's program of upholding the essentials of its tradition while adapting to new circumstances; John Paul II's Redemptor Hominis in 1979, meanwhile, underscored the centrality of the human person, which would be the theological underpinning of his challenge to the Soviet system, as well as to Western consumerism and secularization.

Most expect that in his first encyclical, Benedict XVI will take up the relationship between truth and freedom, laying out the philosophical and theological basis for his struggle against the "dictatorship of relativism" in the developed West. A related theme is likely to be the centrality of Christ in human history, over against forms of religious relativism that treat Christ as one savior or source of revelation among the variety of the world's great religions.

Appointments: Most observers believe Benedict wants to do more than play musical chairs; he wants to change the culture of the Roman Curia, anchoring it more in doctrinal and evangelical considerations, and less in bureaucratic, careerist, and diplomatic impulses. In that regard, the choice of an eventual successor to Cardinal Angelo Sodano as the Secretary of State looms as critically important. Inside the Roman Curia, the monsignori who work at the Secretariat of State represent something of an aristocracy, and graduates of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the elite school for diplomats, who traditionally govern the Secretariat of State, form an aristocracy-within-an-aristocracy. If the pope wants to reorient the sociology of the Vatican, therefore, this is where he will begin.

Under John Paul II, it was long believed that the leading candidates for Secretary of State were Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, currently prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, currently prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Both are Italian, both are products of the Academy. Both have served in overseas diplomatic postings, and both have worked inside the Secretariat of State. Both are known as efficient managers and flexible problem-solvers.

These characteristics, however, no longer seem automatic guarantees of advantage.

Neither do the current deputies in the Secretariat of State, 61-year-old Italian Archbishop Leonardo Sandri (the sostituto), or 70-year-old Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo (the foreign minister), necessarily seem to fit Benedict's bill. Lajolo, for example, was the nuncio in Germany at the time of a dispute over a system of abortion counseling that pitted pragmatists among the German bishops and at Secretariat of State against Ratzinger's more doctrinaire stand.

One rumor making the rounds is that Benedict XVI may go outside the diplomatic service to select the next Secretary of State. One widely mentioned candidate is Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa, the pope's former deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Bertone, an Italian, is familiar with the Secretariat of State from his time in the curia -- he knows both its strengths and its defects. As a Ratzinger lieutenant, he also knows the pope's vision. A Salesian, Bertone has an outgoing personality and "people skills." He was, for example, the Catholic church's top negotiator during the soap opera surrounding Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo and his on-again, off-again wedding to a member of the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon in the summer of 2001.

As important as it is, the Secretary of State is just one item on a long list of important appointments the new pope has to make. Within the Roman Curia, there are six other officials who are either at, or very near, the typical retirement age of 75: Cardinal Moussa I Daoud, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, who will be 75 in September; Dario Castrillón Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, 76; Cardinal Stephen Hamao, president of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees, 75; Cardinal Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, 75; Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who turns 75 on August 30; Cardinal Edmund Szoka, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Vatican City-State, 77.

Some Italian observers have predicted a "tsunami" of personnel moves in the Vatican this fall, and while Benedict will no doubt take measured and thoughtful steps, these open slots already suggest a "changing of the guard."

In addition, there are important residential appointments to be made around the world. One keenly anticipated decision will come in the United States, where Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., turned 75 on July 7. Whether Pope Benedict chooses to quickly accept his resignation, and, if so, who he taps as McCarrick's successor, will be important signals. Other major sees where the incumbent is already past 75 include Detroit, Toronto, Warsaw, Kampala and the pope's own home diocese, Munich-and-Freising.

For the record, the oldest cardinal-archbishop in the world still in the saddle, so to speak, is Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek of Minsk in Belorussia, 90. Most observers believe he will eventually be replaced by Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, currently head of the Archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow. Kondrusiewicz, who grew up in Belorussia, was apostolic administrator in Minsk from 1989 to 1991. The problem is finding a suitable replacement for Kondrusiewicz in Moscow, since it's important for political reasons not to import another Pole as head of the Russian Catholic church.

Trips: When he was in peak health, John Paul generally scheduled three or four major foreign trips each year. No one expects Benedict XVI to travel as much or as extensively, which means that proportionately more thought has to be invested in selecting the trips he does want to make.

Further, at 78, Pope Benedict is aware that the years in which he will have the physical capacity to travel are no doubt limited.

Given the ecumenical thrust of his pontificate, one criterion that will be applied to prospective trips is whether they promise some benefit in terms of Christian unity. This is why many observers take seriously the prospect of a papal trip to Istanbul for the Feast of St. Andrew on Nov. 30, the patronal feast of the Phanar, the headquarters of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

At least two factors will have to be considered.

First, Benedict is concerned about advancing the relationship with the Orthodox across the board, but perhaps especially in Russia, which is the largest branch of the Orthodox family and in many ways the most influential. There is a rivalry between the Patriarch of Constantinople, the primus inter pares among Orthodox patriarchs, and the Patriarch of Moscow. That tension is likely to accelerate if, as rumored, the three branches of the Orthodox church in Ukraine decide to unite and request recognition of autocephalous (i.e., independent) status from Constantinople, a move that would be a devastating blow to Moscow, which receives a sizeable chunk of its vocations, faithful and financial support from Ukraine. Benedict will have to be sure that his outreach to Constantinople does not further drive a wedge between the Catholic church and Moscow.

Second, the diplomatic subtext to the trip will be the question of Turkey and the European Union. On several occasions, then-Cardinal Ratzinger expressed doubts about Turkey's candidacy; most recently in his book The Europe of Benedict in the Crisis of Cultures, he wrote that admitting a nation in Europe whose roots are non-Christian would mean that "God has nothing to do with public life and the basis of the state." The pope's Turkish hosts would try to encourage the pope to soften his line, while opponents of Turkey's entry would be looking for a reaffirmation of his opposition.