April 19, 2005 marked a significant moment in the life of the Church. The world had been eagerly waiting from the moment the cardinal-electors began the conclave. One day later, white smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel chimney and bells rang. Tourists, families, priests and nuns rushed to St. Peter’s Square and soon the world was to hear… Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum;?habemus Papam: Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum,?Dominum Josephum?Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Ratzinger?qui sibi nomen imposuit Benedictum XVI.[i] For billions of people throughout the world, images of the funeral of Pope John Paul II were still fresh in their minds when we were presented with the 265th leader of the over one billion Catholics worldwide. This announcement not only marked the beginning of a new pontificate, but it also brings another to a close.
For many journalists and observers who had pitched their tents in the Vatican City since the passing of Pope John Paul II, it was probably not much of a surprise as he had been a papabile.[ii] Probably there was less excitement as compared to a similar announcement on 16 October 1978 when the “unknown” Karol Cardinal Wojtyla was elected Pope.
Unlike his predecessor, the world knew Josef Cardinal Ratzinger. It has been following him since his appointment as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF). Pope John Paul II made him Prefect of the CDF in 1981 and the next 23 years cemented Raztinger’s reputation as a stern upholder of doctrinal correctness.[iii] This proved to be a disadvantage as the beginning of this pontificate was already weighed down with labels like conservative & anti liberal. According to one journalist, “While many in the crowds in St Peter’s Square roared and cheered their approval, their views were not universally shared. Joseph Ratzinger has a reputation as a fierce and divisive figure – someone who as prefect of the CDF did not hesitate to censure or excommunicate individuals deemed to have strayed from the straight and narrow doctrinal path. To many, his soubriquets, the Iron or Panzer Cardinal, God’s rottweiler, were apt.”[iv] Unknown to many, as a professor of theology at Tübingen, he had a reputation as a progressive and was involved in the Second Vatican Council as a consulter.
As prefect of CDF, he was entrusted with the duty to promote and safeguard the doctrine on the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world. It was an enormous task. In a fast changing world affected by the tsunami of secularism, he had his hands full. This office required someone who could remain true to the faith handed on by Jesus through his apostles. It made him highly unpopular with many who labeled themselves as progressive. By virtue of his office, the media thrived on projecting him as a cardinal to be feared.
However, there is always the other side of the coin. I remember vividly seeing this man on many occasions during my stay in Rome walking through St Peter’s Square towards his flat nearby after a long days work at the Curia. His eyes were often fixed on the pavement as he walked unassumingly to his residence with neither fanfare nor bodyguards. When I heard the announcement that he has been elected Pope, it was this memory that first came to my mind. A simple, unassuming man who only wanted to be faithful to the task entrusted to him. Yet this provided many with opportunities for peoples from all walks of life to enter into lengthy discussions and to draw their own conclusions. His biographer, John Allen was known to have said that Cardinal Ratzinger “is the most humble, gracious and un-careerist man you will ever meet.” However, we will discover that conservative or liberal, intellectual or ideological, these are labels that seem too simplistic to describe this new Pope.
Many Vatican observers expected the prefect to continue where he had left off even though Ratzinger’s homily at the funeral mass of Pope John Paul II showed his warm and caring side, emotions that many did not attribute to this Cardinal. Realising the daunting task of being the successor of Peter, Pope Benedict asked the crowd of over 400,000 present at his inaugural mass and television audience of countless millions, to pray for him. It was a sincere plea from the heart of this 78-year-old Pontiff. From being the most feared cardinal by virtue of his office, he has the task of becoming the most loved bishop. His task will be to unify, inspire, and reconcile. He never tried to hide the fact that he did not have the charisma his predecessor had with the crowds. “Benedict knew his limitations for this enormous task which truly exceeds all human capacity and there seemed to be a real sincerity in his repeated question” How can I do it? How will I be able to match up?”
[v]What will be his plans…..the world wondered? The new Pope at the inauguration mass made it clear that “at this moment there is no need for me to present a programme of governance…. there will be other opportunities to do so. My real programme of governance is 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.”
[vi] Just as in the past, people asked, “what kind of pontificate would this be”? Having been accustomed to the “style” of Pope John Paul II, Vatican observers watched intently hoping to pick up signs that would give an indication of what is to come. However, “he [Pope Benedict] has spent the first 100 days of his pontificate modestly and quietly, reminding those with memories long enough not of his immediate predecessor but of Pope Paul VI (the Pope who appointed him Cardinal). He has done almost nothing controversial, which means that those who rejoiced that the papacy had shifted to the right with his election have nothing yet to confirm their judgment. Nor indeed have those who feared such a shift.”
[vii]Four years later what can we say about this man and his pontificate? Like the first encyclical of Pope John Paul II (Redemptor Hominis), Deus Caritas Est was expected to set the tone for Pope Benedict’s pontificate. Why did this Pope choose love as the theme of his first encyclical? The new Pope was quick to point out that it the true understanding of love that can illuminate the lives of many towards the right path of life. The Pope recognizes that the word love has lost its original meaning and therefore we must reclaim it, purify it and bring it back to its original splendor for true “love is the key to scripture, and love of God and neighbour the hinge on which human life turns.”
[viii]The implications derived from this encyclical gives an indication of the kind of papacy that we can come to expect. The centrality of charity (one of the theological virtues) in the life of the Church must have far reaching effects. Christian charity is not only in feeding the poor but a true reflection of God’s love in the world.
Seen in this light then, Pope Benedict’s second encyclical Caritas in Veritate is a reaffirmation that love must be faithful to the truth. He makes it clear that love without truth has little relevance in the world today. For this reason then Christian charity is at the very heart of the Church’s social doctrine.
Both these encyclicals suggest that love – the core Christian virtue, is going to be the center of this papacy. This love is not merely a sentimental wishy-washy emotion. It is a love that will call for openness to dialogue, ecumenism, warm overtures to young people and courage to speak the truth as expressed by the Pope in the subsequent days after his election. In short, it is becoming clearer now that Pope Benedict’s papacy thus far has been devoted to “his defense of core Christian values in the face of what he sees as moral decline across much of Europe.”
[i] English Translation: I announce to you a great joy; We have a Pope: The most eminent and most reverend Lord, Lord Josef,? Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church Ratzinger who takes to himself the name of Benedict XVI.
[ii] Papabile is an Italian expression that describes a cardinal of whom it is thought likely or possible that he will be elected pope.
[iii] Elena Curti, & Margaret Hebblethwaith, “Gamekeeper turned Pastor,” The Tablet, 23 April 2005, p. 5.
[iv] Curti, Elena & Margaret Hebblethwaith, “Gamekeeper turned Pastor,” The Tablet, 23 April 2005, p. 4.
[v] Margaret Hebblethwaite, “The reconciler reaches out,” The TablProet, 30 April 2005, p. 6.
[vi] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at the Inauguration Mass, St Peter’s Square, 24 April 2005. See http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/homilies/2005/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_ 20050424_inizio-pontificato_en.html
[vii] “Benedict’s first 100 days”, The Tablet, 30 July 2005
[viii] Janet Martin Soskice, “Heart of the Matter”, The Tablet, 4 February 2006, p.4.
[ix] Profile: Pope Benedict XVI, BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4445279.stm