Benedict XVI charts course as successor to John Paul II

Benedict XVI charts course as successor to John Paul II

Michael Gilchrist

The choice of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI after a very brief conclave was welcome news for Catholics keen to see the reforms of Pope John Paul II consolidated. From Benedict's first moments as successor to St Peter, it was clear he would continue to uphold the Church's unchanging doctrinal and moral teachings.

No-one in the Church had worked more closely with the late Holy Father over such an extended period, nor set out so many assessments of the state and future needs of Catholicism in a succession of books, journal articles, interviews and addresses.

In an ironic development, the global best-seller The Da Vinci Code, recently criticised by the Vatican but named book of the year at the British Book Awards, lost its supremacy on the Amazon.com best seller list to two books written by the new Pope.

Track record

Following the conclave, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago observed that the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger was clear "almost from the beginning." His grasp of world history and his track record of protecting the faith for the past 24 years had prepared him to lead the Church, Cardinal George told a news conference at the Pontifical North American College following the new Pope's first Mass.

When Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope 26 years ago, some of the most difficult challenges to the Church's mission had come from the the Communist world, said the Cardinal. "Twenty-six years later, the most difficult challenges to the Church's mission come from the West. There is a man now very well prepared who understands Western society and the history of the world".

The new Pontiff's reaction to his election typified his deep spirituality and unassuming personality.

Regarding his age (78), Benedict XVI recalled the words of Jesus to his predecessor, the Apostle Peter - "When you are old, someone else will fasten your belt and lead you where you do not wish to go".

And at the end of his first homily as Pope, during the Mass with the Cardinal electors in the Sistine Chapel on 20 April, he said: "I consider this a grace obtained for me by my venerated predecessor, John Paul II. It seems I can feel his strong hand squeezing mine; I seem to see his smiling eyes and listen to his words, addressed to me especially at this moment: 'Be not afraid!'

"Electing me as the Bishop of Rome, the Lord wanted me as his Vicar, he wished me to be the 'rock' upon which everyone may rest with confidence. I ask him to make up for the poverty of my strength, that I may be a courageous and faithful pastor of His flock, always docile to the inspirations of His Spirit."

In his first general audience on 27 April in St Peter's Square, the Pope explained why he had chosen the name of Benedict. It was, he said, linked "to the venerated Pontiff, Benedict XV, who guided the Church through the turbulent times of the First World War. He was a true and courageous prophet of peace who struggled strenuously and bravely, first to avoid the drama of war and then to limit its terrible consequences. In his footsteps I place my ministry, in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples ...".

He also connected his name to "the extraordinary figure of the great 'patriarch of Western monasticism,' St Benedict of Norcia, co-patron of Europe with Cyril and Methodius. The progressive expansion of the Benedictine Order which he founded exercised an enormous influence on the spread of Christianity throughout the European continent ... [H]e constitutes a fundamental point of reference for the unity of Europe and a powerful call to the irrefutable Christian roots of European culture and civilisation."

As a latter-day Benedict, the Pope clearly regards it as his task to emulate his namesake. One of the ideological currents he believes is pushing the world toward a "dictatorship of relativism" is the secularism that has led to a decline in practice of the Christian faith, particularly in Western Europe.

In his meditations for the Way of the Cross on Good Friday (24 March), the then Cardinal Ratzinger compared the Catholic Church to "a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side."

He was especially forthright: "How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him! How much pride, how much self-complacency! What little respect we pay to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where he waits for us, ready to raise us up whenever we fall!"

New paganism

He further deplored a state of affairs where "a Christianity which has grown weary of faith has abandoned the Lord," allowing the growth of false ideologies and the emergence of "the banal existence of those who, no longer believing in anything, simply drift through life, have built a new and worse paganism, which in its attempt to do away with God once and for all, has ended up doing away with man."

While his language as Pope may now be more restrained, there is no doubting his underlying concerns.

During his homily at the Mass for the Imposition of the Pallium, the Conferral of the Fisherman's Ring, and the Inauguration of his Pontificate in St Peter's Square on 24 April, Pope Benedict said there was no need for him "to present a program of governance." His intention was "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."

Prior to the Mass, underlining his succession from St Peter, Pope Benedict, accompanied by the Eastern patriarchs, descended to the tomb of the first Pope beneath St Peter's to pay his homage. The Pallium and Fisherman's Ring had been laid there throughout the previous night.

The next day, he visited the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, which houses St Paul's tomb, "to express the inseparable bond of the Roman Church with the Apostle Paul."

While Benedict XVI's views on a host of subjects have been spelled out in his many works published prior to his election as Pope, he has already been indicating his priorities.

At the end of the Mass concelebrated with the Cardinal electors in the Sistine Chapel on 20 April, he said he wished "to affirm with force my decided will to pursue the commitment to enact Vatican Council II, in the wake of my predecessors and in faithful continuity with the millennia-old tradition of the Church.

"Precisely this year is the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of this conciliar assembly (8 December 1965). With the passing of time, the conciliar documents have not lost their timeliness; their teachings have shown themselves to be especially pertinent to the new exigencies of the Church and the present globalised society."

Liturgy reform

His own close involvement in the drafting of Vatican II's documents has given the new Pope exceptional qualification to judge whether these have been faithfully implemented. In this regard, he once quoted another cardinal who compared the Council aftermath to a huge construction site "where the blueprint had been lost and everyone continues to build according to his taste". The "result", said the then Cardinal Ratzinger, "is evident."

The liturgy is a case in point, with the Cardinal notably frank in his criticisms of the implementation of Vatican II's reforms (see page 9).

Since his election, the new Pope has underlined the centrality of the Eucharist: "In a very significant way, my pontificate starts as the Church is living the special year dedicated to the Eucharist. How can I not see in this providential coincidence an element that must mark the ministry to which I have been called? The Eucharist, the heart of Christian life and the source of the evangelising mission of the Church, cannot but be the permanent centre and the source of the petrine service entrusted to me."

The Eucharist, he said, would be at the centre, in August, of World Youth Day in Cologne and, in October, of the ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops which would take place on the theme "The Eucharist, Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church."

He continued: "I ask everyone to intensify in coming months love and devotion to the Eucharistic Jesus and to express in a courageous and clear way the real presence of the Lord, above all through the solemnity and the correctness of the celebrations [my emphasis].

"I ask this in a special way of priests, about whom I am thinking in this moment with great affection. The priestly ministry was born in the Cenacle, together with the Eucharist, as my venerated predecessor John Paul II underlined so many times. 'The priestly life must have in a special way a Eucharistic form', he wrote in his last Letter for Holy Thursday. The devout daily celebration of Holy Mass, the centre of the life and mission of every priest, contributes to this end."

Most often mentioned in media reports has been Benedict XVI's firm but realistic commitment to ecumenism: "Expressions of good feelings are not enough. Concrete gestures are required to penetrate souls and move consciences, encouraging everyone to that interior conversion which is the basis for all progress on the road of ecumenism."

Here there needed to be "a profound examination of the historical reasons behind past choices" and "a purification of memory".

He was, he said, "fully determined to cultivate any initiative that may seem appropriate to promote contact and agreement with representatives from the various Churches and ecclesial communities."

Beyond Christian unity, he addressed himself "to everyone, even to those who follow other religions or who are simply seeking an answer to the fundamental questions of life and have not yet found it", assuring them "the Church wants to continue to build an open and sincere dialogue with them, in a search for the true good of mankind and of society."

Meanwhile, since the effective implementation of his policies depended on having heads of Vatican congregations all pulling in the same direction, Pope Benedict was expected to make some future personnel changes. In the short term, however, he has confirmed the top leaders of the Roman Curia in their posts "donec aliter provideatur" - until the Pope makes other arrangements.

Vatican-watchers expect the Holy Father gradually to install his own team of collaborators in the top Curial posts. Since several leaders of the Roman Curia are over 75, and have already submitted their resignations, the new Pope is free to accept those resignations whenever he chooses. This is the case notably with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State, who is 77.

On 13 May, the name of the new Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco - was announced. It will be the highest position held by an American prelate in the Church's history.

Finally, while the negative responses of the Church's dissenters were as expected, it was edifying that, as with his predecessor, Benedict XVI's age was no barrier to his appeal to young Catholics. This was evident in the cheering ranks of those in St Peter's Square at the Masses for the late Pope's funeral and the new Pope's installation.

World Youth Day

Cardinal Edward Egan of New York cited the responses of young American seminarians studying in Rome to the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger: "They were exultant. They were shouting, 'Thank you'," said Cardinal Egan.

"We've just grown up with John Paul II, taken on his views and his approach to things," said Jason Parzynski, 24, who is studying in Rome for the Diocese of Lansing. "Cardinal Ratzinger was the personal theologian to John Paul II, and he'll carry on."

American priests in Rome said Pope John Paul II had nurtured their call to the priesthood at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 and in Toronto in 2002. Fr Steve Lopes, 30, said most of those ordained with him in 2001 had attended World Youth Day in Denver.

Significantly, Benedict XVI's first international trip is likely to be to his native Germany, for World Youth Day in Cologne from 18-21 August. Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Archbishop of Cologne, revealed that Benedict XVI, no sooner elected, confirmed his intention to attend World Youth Day.

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