After the Great John Paul

REV. RAYMOND DE SOUZA

"After the great Pope John Paul..." What this period meant for the Church was the cause of trepidation in some quarters after the Holy Father's death. After Cologne, there is a measure of relief, and a measure of heightened expectation Benedict has made John Paul's stage his own.

Pope Benedict XVI shaking hands
with rabbi Netanel Teitelbaum

Pope Benedict XVI returned home to Germany last week, but it was for a stage that had been built for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Benedict knew as much, mentioning his "unforgettable," "venerable" or simply "great" predecessor in each of his dozen-plus addresses over four days in Cologne. And then he showed he would perform upon that stage in his own way as is fitting for a German pope in his fatherland.

Canadians remember the World Youth Day three years ago in Toronto, when John Paul II, despite his infirmity, demonstrated his mastery of the dramatic image, the ad-libbed moment and the touching gesture. John Paul created the massive World Youth Days, and the unspoken question in Cologne last week was whether another man could assume the mantle.

"That so many young people have come to meet the Successor of Peter is a sign of the Church's vitality," Benedict said upon his arrival. That vitality was manifest under John Paul in what could sometimes appear as an intense, spiritual pep rally. When the late pope's helicopter descended into Mile High Stadium in Denver for WYD 1993, the pilot commented that the waves of sound from the crowd buffeted the chopper as if there were bad weather. Last week, as Benedict arrived in Cologne in the prow of a boat upon the Rhine, it was a classic John Paul image. But Benedict is different.

"His communication will be primarily theological and spiritual," said the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin. "That will be his legacy. John Paul II brought enormous prestige to the papacy, but Benedict XVI will refocus to some extent where its essential characteristics are."

Indeed, in the two principal addresses of his visit — the Saturday youth vigil and the Sunday Mass — Benedict delivered very complex meditations on the nature of freedom, power and the truly revolutionary work that is the mission of saints. There were no personal asides, no laughing "Benedict loves you too!" moments. John Paul had spent his life as a pastor, and so was a father, or grandfather, to the young. Benedict spent his life as a teacher and presents himself as just that — a gentle but demanding teacher, who loves young people enough to demand much of them.

Benedict knows what his mission is. His first words on the balcony of St. Peter's after his election gave, in a sense, the program for his pontificate: "After the great Pope John Paul II...."

His is a simpler style, quite endearingly oblivious to the demands of television. The first glimpse the world got of Benedict arriving at the Cologne airport was not of a waving pope, descending the stairs to kiss the ground, but rather of his turning back into the plane in search of his white zucchetto that had blown off in the wind. He didn't find it.


The first glimpse the world got of Benedict arriving at the Cologne airport was not of a waving pope, descending the stairs to kiss the ground, but rather of his turning back into the plane in search of his white zucchetto that had blown off in the wind. He didn't find it.


Benedict's role is to secure the John Paul's legacy in the life of the Church. For a body that reputedly thinks in centuries, the Church also lives very much in the present moment. Many wondered if the achievements of John Paul were simply unique to him — a 27-year adventure that has now come to an end.

That Benedict's first trip was for WYD, something he would never have started on his own, cements that part of John Paul's legacy as a now permanent part of the Church's life. At the same time, in conducting WYD in his own, more solemn, less exuberant way, Benedict demonstrated that what John Paul started does not have to be continued in exactly the same way.

That was true too of Benedict's visit to the Cologne synagogue, echoing John Paul's historic visit to the synagogue of Rome in 1986: another legacy secured, but in Benedict's own way. Even more notable was the meeting with European Muslims. He welcomed them as brothers as John Paul had, but he challenged them sharply on extremism, hatred and terror. That was something John Paul had not done. Benedict evidently believes that the Catholic-Muslim dialogue is sufficiently mature to enable both sides to speak more frankly.

Benedict's securing of John Paul's legacy will be more than a matter of style alone. In his homilies and addresses, Benedict reveals himself clearly as the master theologian that he is. Whereas John Paul, the personalist philosopher, would often speak about the human experience of God in explicitly personal terms, Benedict prefers to begin with God's merciful love, which consequently lifts the horizons of human experience. John Paul rarely spoke without a reference to the experience of modern life. Benedict rarely speaks without reference the ancient wisdom of the fathers of the Church. He will serve John Paul's legacy well by grounding the late pope's teaching in the ancient tradition of the Church's theology.

"After the great Pope John Paul..." What this period meant for the Church was the cause of trepidation in some quarters after the Holy Father's death. After Cologne, there is a measure of relief, and a measure of heightened expectation — Benedict has made John Paul's stage his own.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "After the Great John Paul." National Post, (Canada) August 23, 2005.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

THE AUTHOR

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright 2005 National Post


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