By Sam Eyoboka with Agency reports
WHEN Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a German conservative archbishop of the Catholic Church, was elected on April 19, 2005 as the leader of about 1.2 billion Catholics the world over, there was only one thing uppermost in his mind: how to make the world more peaceful.
Benedict XVI is believed to have dedicated his first 12 months to studing essentially because, though he had spent many years in Rome , some mechanisms and functioning of the Curia were not familiar to him. This explained why, as opposed to many predictions, his Curia was, to a very great extent, that of John Paul II.
The struggle against secularization, renewal of the faith, the defense of life and the family, the spread of knowledge of Christ — the subjects seem the same, but Benedict XVI’s style was mostly the same as those of his predecessor. Ratzinger was John Paul II’s theological pillar for almost 25 years, and, in the last years, there was no important topic, including many appointments, on which he was not consulted.
The style was profoundly different, and it couldn’t be otherwise. John Paul II’s poetic-intuitive tendency is not the analytical-rational one of Benedict XVI; two different paths to arrive at the same objective.
In one of his earliest press interviews after his inauguration, Pope Benedict XVI charged the media to spread peace and exercise responsibility to ensure objective reports that respect human dignity and the common good.
The call was similar to the charge Benedict issued April 23, 2005 during a meeting with journalists in his first public audience after being elected pope.
Five years into his pontificate, Benedict’s vision had clearly manifested in two dimensions: creating space for religion in the public sphere and space for God in private lives.
CRISIS OF FAITH
In hundreds of speeches and homilies, in three encyclicals, on 13 foreign trips, during synods of bishops and even through new web sites, the German pontiff confronted what he called a modern “crisis of faith,” saying the root cause of moral and social ills is a reluctance to acknowledge the truth that comes from God.
To counter this crisis, he proposed Christianity as a religion of love, not rules. Its core mission, he said repeatedly, is to help people accept God’s love and share it, recognizing that true love involves a willingness to make sacrifices.
His emphasis on God as Creator tapped into ecological awareness, for which he’s been dubbed the “Green Pope.” He presented the faith as a path not only to salvation, but also to social justice and true happiness.
Benedict surprised those who expected a doctrinaire disciplinarian. As a universal pastor, he led Catholics back to the basics of their faith, catechizing them on Christianity’s foundational practices, writings and beliefs, ranging from the Confessions of St. Augustine to the sign of the cross.
But Benedict’s quiet teaching mission has been frequently overshadowed by problems and crises that have grabbed headlines, provoked criticism of the church and left the pontiff with an uphill battle to get a hearing.
The fifth anniversary of his election is a case in point. It was viewed by many in the Vatican as an opportunity for the pope to stand in the media spotlight, underline the essential themes of his pontificate and prepare the world for the second volume of his work, “Jesus of Nazareth.”
But the fallout from the priestly sex abuse crisis has muted the celebratory atmosphere at the Vatican and placed papal aides on the defensive.
In a letter to Irish Catholics in March, the pope personally apologized to victims of priestly sexual abuse and announced new steps to heal the wounds of the scandal, including a Vatican investigation and a year of penitential reparation.
Vatican officials viewed the letter as an unprecedented act of transparency by a pope who, even as a cardinal, pushed for harsher penalties against abusers. For critics, however, the papal letter was mere words. Soon the Vatican was denying accusations that the pope himself, as a German archbishop, failed to adequately monitor a priest abuser.
Other controversies have eclipsed the pope’s wider message during his first five years. Visiting his native Bavaria in 2006, he upset many Islamic leaders when he quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor who said the Prophet Mohammed had brought “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command.” To spread the faith by the sword. The pope later said he was merely citing and not endorsing the criticism of Islam, but he conceded that the speech was open to misinterpretation. Then he began a bridge-building effort with Muslim scholars that eventually led to a major new chapter in Vatican-Muslim dialogue.
During a late 2006 visit to Turkey , the pope prayed in Istanbul ‘s Blue Mosque next to an Islamic cleric, a gesture of respect that resonated positively throughout the Islamic world. At the same time, he continued to insist that all religions must reject violence carried out in their name.
Liturgy has been a major focus of Pope Benedict. It is one of the areas where he wants to better balance the renewal launched by the Second Vatican Council with the church’s tradition — a process he called “innovation in continuity.”
RECONCILIATION NEARLY DERAILS
In 2007, the pope’s removal of restrictions on use of the Tridentine rite, the Latin-language liturgy that predates the Second Vatican Council, was a major concession to traditionalists and part of a push toward an agreement with the breakaway Society of St. Pius X. But when he lifted the excommunications of four of the society’s bishops in early 2009, that reconciliation project nearly derailed. One of the four, Bishop Richard Williamson, had three days earlier provoked outrage with assertions that the Holocaust was exaggerated and that no Jews died in Nazi gas chambers.
The pope moved to repair damage with Jewish groups, and in a remarkable letter about the episode he thanked “our Jewish friends” who helped restore a sense of trust.
The list of Pope Benedict’s other accomplishments includes documents, meetings and spiritual initiatives: — His three encyclicals have placed love and charity at the center of church life. In 2006, the encyclical “God Is Love” described the faith as charity in action, and said God cannot be shut out of personal and social life. “On Christian Hope” in 2007, he presented Jesus Christ as the source of love and hope in eternal salvation, the “great hope” that can sustain contemporary men and women. “Charity in Truth” in 2009 said social justice was inseparable from the concept of Christian charity, and called for reform of international economic institutions and practices.
*His book, Jesus of Nazareth, which has sold more than two million copies, emphasized that Jesus was God, not merely a moralist or a political revolutionary or a social reformer. In calling for a personal relationship with Jesus, it touched on a point the pope has made elsewhere: “One can never know Christ only theoretically.”
MORAL CHALLENGE TO US CULTURE
On his first trip to the US , however, Pope Benedict was said to have achieved three objectives considered critical to the pastoral future of the American church . First, the pope brought a certain closure to the priestly sex abuse scandal that has shaken the church for more than six years, expressing his personal shame at what happened and praying with the victims.
Second, he set forth a moral challenge to the wider US culture on issues ranging from economic justice to abortion, but without coming across as doctrinaire or bullying.
Third, to a church that often seems divided into conservative and liberal camps, he issued a firm appeal to “set aside all anger” and unite in order to effectively evangelize society.
The pope addressed clerical sex abuse on five different occasions, beginning with his encounter with reporters aboard his plane from Rome . He spoke from the heart about the shame, the damage to the Church and the suffering of the victims. He also spoke with familiarity about the church’s efforts to make sure perpetrators are out of ministry and to implement better screening of would-be priests. At one point, he mentioned that when he read the case histories of the victims, he found it hard to imagine how a priest could betray his mission to be an agent of God’s love.
PARTISAN POLITICAL QUESTIONS
One of his strongest themes was church unity. At a Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York , he expressed disappointment with the formation of divisions within the church between Catholic groups, generations and individuals.
The church, he said, needs to “put aside all anger and contention” and turn its gaze together toward Christ. At a Mass in Yankee Stadium on his last day in New York , he told Catholics to remember that all church groups, associations and programs exist only to support and foster deeper unity in Christ.
The papal Masses highlighted the diversity of the church in the US which, as the pope said, comes together in a “common commitment to the spread of the gospel.” These were colorful, musical liturgies and the pope seemed pleased with them.
The papal visit did not register very high on topical issues. He avoided partisan political questions, did not mention Iraq and, although he visited Ground Zero, certainly did not dwell on terrorism.
His UN address was not a state-of-the-world survey but a call to conscience on the moral foundations of human rights. The pope’s focus was religion and its place in all areas of life. Before the papal visit, most Americans said they didn’t know a lot about Pope Benedict. When he left the country, they were more likely to view him as he described himself upon his arrival: as “a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society.”