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Posted March 27, 2006

A year after Pope Benedict's election,
world sees new style of papacy

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

In April, the church marks the first anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI, events that captured the world's attention and introduced a new style of papacy.

Thousands will gather to pray in St. Peter's Square the evening of April 2, a poignant reminder of the vigil outside the late pope's window on that date last year, when a hushed crowd was told the pontiff had "returned to the house of the Father."

As his sainthood cause gathers momentum, Pope John Paul remains in people's hearts, a fact witnessed daily in the seemingly endless line of pilgrims who come to his grave carrying flowers, notes or a silent prayer.

Pope Benedict, meanwhile, has used a simple and direct approach to win over the record crowds that are flocking to his appearances at the Vatican and elsewhere. Quietly and slowly, in more than 200 sermons and speeches, he has engaged the faithful and the wider society on the fundamental issues of truth, freedom, faith and human dignity.

In some ways, it has taken a full year for the papal transition -- a year to absorb the legacy of Pope John Paul's long pontificate and a year for Pope Benedict's papacy to come into focus.

The new pope found himself presiding over many events scheduled under his predecessor, like the Synod of Bishops last October, several canonizations, the closing of the eucharistic year, and numerous meetings and liturgies.

Pope Benedict has eased gently into his role. Those who hoped for tough new doctrinal pronouncements, wholesale removal of liberal bishops and a rollback in liturgical reform have been disappointed.

The pope's only major document so far has been an encyclical that focused on what he called the foundation of the Christian message, "God is love," and its implications for personal and institutional charity.

The much-discussed Vatican document barring men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies from the priesthood, although approved by Pope Benedict, was a project inherited from the previous pontificate.

The long-rumored tsunami of replacements in the Roman Curia has not hit yet. The pope's only major appointment came last May, when he named U.S. Archbishop William J. Levada as head of the doctrinal congregation and later named him a cardinal.

But in March, the pope made his first move to streamline Vatican offices. At least temporarily, the council dealing with migration was combined with the justice and peace council, and the council that dialogues with non-Christian religions -- including Muslims -- was combined with the council for culture. The final alignment of curial offices is not yet clear and the changes may take months, but most expect a significant shrinking of the number of agencies.

For the last year, however, Pope Benedict's priorities have not been administrative. Instead, he has embarked on what might be described as a project to water the roots of the faith.

He has urged Catholics to rediscover Christ as the focus of their personal lives and to resist the tendency to make the individual ego "the only criterion" for their choices. The pope has been careful to phrase this as a sympathetic invitation and not a warning.

"We continually close our doors; we continually want to feel secure and do not want to be disturbed by others and by God" -- and yet still Christ will come for his people, the pope said in a sermon last May.

As a teacher, he has turned to Scripture far more than doctrine, making connections between the early Christians of apostolic times and modern men and women struggling to live their faith.

Pope Benedict has tackled contemporary social and political issues by emphasizing a few main principles: that human rights rest on human dignity, that people come before profits, that the right to life is an ancient measure of humanity and not just a Catholic teaching, and that efforts to exclude God from civil affairs are corroding modern society.

He returns often to a central theme -- the relationship between God and man -- in language that can be clear-cut and gripping.

"Human life is a relationship . . . and the basic relationship is with the Creator, otherwise all relationships are fragile. To choose God, that is the essential thing. A world emptied of God, a world that has forgotten God, loses life and falls into a culture of death," the pope said in a talk in March.

He has zeroed in on what he has called Europe's spiritual fatigue, occasionally rattling the cages and rallying the forces on issues like gay marriage, cohabitation and abortion.

Compared to his predecessor's early years, Pope Benedict appears to be going at a slower pace. All the same, his list of first-year accomplishments 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 excommunicated Bishop Bernard 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 H. Niederauer to San Francisco.

The pope's style -- deliberate and thoughtful -- was seen in the way he took up residence in the Apostolic Palace. He commissioned a lengthy remodeling of the papal apartment, and only in December did he really move in, along with his 20,000 books.

It impressed people at the Vatican that the pope took the time to meet separately with the often-overlooked groups of employees who serve him every day, including ushers, papal gentlemen, members of the papal antechamber and the Vatican's security force.

Pope Benedict has had an overwhelmingly favorable reception, too, among the tens of thousands of pilgrims who come to see him each week. When he moves through a crowd, he seems to look people in the eye.

Last year, when the pope waived the normal five-year waiting period for the start of Pope John Paul II's sainthood cause, he showed he was sensitive to the popular voice of the church.

In April, when the crowds gather to pray in St. Peter's Square, he will join them in remembering the late pontiff and the dramatic events set in motion by his death.