Benedict completes his first twelve months as Pope

Benedict completes his first twelve months as Pope

Fr Ephraem Chifley

Fr Ephraem Chifley is from the St James' Priory, Glebe, in Sydney, is editor of the religious journal 'Oriens' and a Dominican priest. His article first appeared in the Melbourne 'Sunday Herald Sun'.

The anniversary of the death of John Paul II on 2 April 2005 is also a good time to reflect on the new papacy.

The pontificate of Pope John Paul II spanned an extraordinary time in the religious history of Western Civilisation. Beginning in 1978 after the tragically short reign of his predecessor John Paul I, it continued through the 1980s and the final stages of the Cold War into the new millennium.

No one who lived at the beginning of the reign of John Paul II could have predicted how it would end. Astounding showmanship and a gift for the unsettling gesture made him almost immediately a media star. Kissing the ground (his trademark); publicly wagging his finger at delinquent Marxist clergy; kissing the Koran; visiting his would-be assassin in jail to forgive him - gestures such as these captured the imagination of two generations.

Nor can anyone forget his visit to his native country Poland, bringing hope of freedom to that bravest and most betrayed of nations. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe an unexpected answer was given to Stalin's snide question "How many divisions has the Pope?"

Generation of 1968

It is not just the Berlin Wall that was torn down during Wojtyla's reign. In the West the sacred certainties of the generation of 1968 also began to totter. Last year, Anne Rice, a quintessential baby-boomer and New Orleans chronicler of vampires and all things gothic, published a novel called Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, about Jesus' family and upbringing.

It was unusual not just because of the surprising spiritual odyssey of its author, but also because she chose to write about Jesus as he appeared in the New Testament, rather as an artist might depict passages from the life of Christ. It was a task she considered much more difficult than writing a book about, for example, a gay, married or revolutionary Christ. She pursued it with the piety of her original Catholic upbringing rather than her adopted and now discarded atheism.

Her research into the New Testament world was thorough and led her to make a series of interesting observations about the dislike that many scripture scholars evidently feel for Jesus.

Historians rarely exhibit any animus against the characters they study, Hitler and Stalin apart, but she found an inexplicable and troubling lack of scholarly detachment with regard to Jesus among Christian academics.

Observers of religious trends over the last forty years will not be surprised. It is frequently the case that a convert, or someone like Rice who returns to Christianity, discovers an intransigent scepticism on the part of the official believers. Belief in the historical accuracy of the Gospels is considered at best naïve or more usually a sinister prelude to narrow fundamentalism. Almost every alternative is explored except the notion that Christ might have been what he claimed.

These modern Christians not only have deeply conflicted feelings about Jesus but also about the Church and churchmen who are seen as accepting the reliability of the Gospel story. These are not idle theological quarrels. They have serious implications for culture and politics.

The Jesus of modern theology, who was a good-natured, if unlucky, hippy with not much to say about the details of our lives does not threaten as much as the Son of God Incarnate, who spoke with authority, died for our sins and rose in the flesh. We cannot ignore him.

His words have resonated through the ages. Jesus is the founder not only of Christianity, but also of Europe. By Europe I mean not the geographical entity but that part of mankind which is culturally Christian and is an inheritor of Greek philosophy and Roman law - what used to be called Christendom.

Europe's self-loathing

Joseph Ratzinger - Pope John Paul's right-hand man and now successor - is best interpreted as a champion of Christendom. Pope Benedict XVI in a recent essay published in First Things speaks of Europe's self-loathing as one of its greatest problems. Western Academia's dislike of Jesus identified by Rice is clearly generated by that self- hatred of European culture spoken about by Benedict XVI.

He concludes by saying: "[The West] has lost all capacity for self- love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure. What Europe needs is a new self-acceptance, a self- acceptance that is critical and humble, if it truly wishes to survive."

This is the essence of his program as Pope - to give Christendom back its heart.

Benedict, like Wojtyla before him, appeals to serious scholars of all faiths and none. Oriana Fallaci, a feisty atheist intellectual who faces charges of religious vilification in her native Italy over some of her statements about Islam, has said similar things about Europe's loss of self- identity. She says of Benedict, "I feel less alone when I read the books of Ratzinger." She goes on, "I am an atheist, and if an atheist and a pope think the same things, there must be something true. It's that simple! There must be some human truth here that is beyond religion."

As with John Paul, how Benedict's reign might end is difficult to foresee at its beginning. His first year, though, has been characterised by a gentle but relentless setting of boundaries. Many on the progressive wing of the Church feared some sort of reactionary pogrom directed against those who had published and spoken against Ratzinger as head of the Holy Office and John Paul's Mr Fixit.

These fears have been groundless - as anyone who had read his books with attention should have realised. His first letter to the whole Church was named God is Love. This is hardly the theme for the Grand Inquisitor from central casting - especially since he spends his spare hours playing Mozart on his piano and feeding Rome's stray cats.

Roman curia

As a member of the Roman curia Benedict has had to be an astute player in the oldest and subtlest bureaucracy on earth. Wojtyla came from outside and was frequently outfoxed by the clerical Sir Humphreys around him, especially in the Vatican Secretariat of State. Perhaps this more than anything influenced the outcome of the last papal election. All the cardinals knew there will be no such lapses with Benedict. There are no leaks from his inner cabinet. Roman rumour mills may grind, but "those who know don't talk, and those who talk don't know".

What we do know is that the Secretariat of State seems to be on notice that it is the servant of the Holy Father, rather than vice versa. But whatever changes of policy Benedict has implemented have no public profile so far - even the best informed Roman journalists have had to guess.

Despite his gift for administration Benedict has consulted widely. He leads by convincing rather than by the raw exercise of power - but lead, he does. This was very much in evidence in the first session of the meeting of the College of Cardinals in March.

Throughout his sermon to the cardinals he repeated the phrase, "I am counting on you..." He also listened intently to the intervention by each of the cardinals in all five of the common languages and gave a summary at the end of each session in his own words. One cardinal described it as a tour de force. There are few minds in the Church, indeed the world at large, to match his for analytical skill. When he comes to a decision on any important matter it is likely that he will carry the bulk of the cardinals and bishops by the persuasive power of his intellect.

The subject matter of this consistory principally concerned the Church's relations with Islam, the role of retired bishops and reconciliation with the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre - matters that he has identified as needing the attention of the Church's best minds.

Relations with Islam have never been easy. It was noted that in a departure from the atmosphere prevailing under John Paul, many cardinals felt that a greater boldness in calling Muslim countries to observe human rights in regard to religious belief was well overdue. Especially in the Third World where local churches are afflicted by the imposition of Islamic law, slave trading and outright repression. In late March Benedict appealed for the life of a man who had faced the death sentence from a court in Afghanistan for converting away from Islam to Christianity.

While dialogue with moderate Islam is certainly a priority as is freedom of religion within the bounds of the common good, Pope Benedict will be more emphatic about the place of Christianity in Europe and more demanding of reciprocity from Muslims with regard to adherence to human rights. A Muslim can freely worship in a mosque in Rome. In many Muslim countries Christians are persecuted. Rather than pretending not to notice, the Catholic Church is about to become vocal about this contradiction wherever it will bring relief to local congregations.

The issue of retired bishops appears to be a minor administrative matter. In reality it concerns one of the implications of the decline in the number of priests which bottomed out in the early 1980s - there are not enough priests with the qualifications necessary to be made bishops. Dodgy seminary formation has left the Church with at least one, possibly two generations, of priests who are unsuitable to receive mitres. Many older bishops are going to have to stay around in their diocese for some time, until the next generation of priests is old enough to take over. The close supervision of seminaries, neglected for some decades, will take many years to bear its fruit - in the meantime a holy Dad's Army will have to hold the fort.

The question of the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre is the most vexed. The destruction of the old Latin Mass is an emblem for many of the devastation of the years following the Second Vatican Council. For others the old liturgy is a symbol of the dark, bad old days of meatless Fridays, sexual repression and clerical collars, when being Catholic separated you from the society round about.

Vast pastoral mistake

Again the judgement of pathological self-hatred is difficult to avoid. After 1970, with the issuing of the new Mass texts, the old Mass was ruthlessly suppressed and those who wanted it were driven into the wilderness. No quarter was given, and the Church now has to clean up the mess of that vast pastoral mistake - several million Catholics technically in schism for doing what they and their ancestors had done for almost 1500 years. In France a quarter of the people who go to Mass every Sunday go to the old Mass. This proportion will increase year by year, since Latin Mass Catholics tend to have many more children. It is clear that Pope Benedict believes it is time to bring this creative minority back into the fold.

One of Rome's veteran journalists, Sandro Magister, has commented that people came in their thousands to see John Paul II, but that people come, still in their many thousands, to listen to Benedict XVI. They are interested in what he has to say - word for word. His ethereal, wise persona attracts the younger generation in ways different from John Paul but every bit as compelling.

The program of individual freedom, sexual liberation and the destruction of symbols and institutions that characterised the generation of 1968 has left behind it an intellectual and cultural wasteland - not least in the Church. No one sees this more clearly than the present Pope.

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