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
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
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
-- 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
-- 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
-- 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
-- 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
-- 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
-- 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
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.