A Pope of Quiet SurprisesGEORGE WEIGEL
When the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI first appeared on the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica this past April, he was smiling broadly - a surprise, perhaps, for those accustomed to the cartoon of Joseph Ratzinger as "God's Rottweiler."
A liberated Joseph Ratzinger was likely to produce some surprises. And, in fact, Benedict XVI has been a pope of the quiet, understated surprise during his first seven months in the papacy. Throughout September and October, Benedict drew larger crowds to his weekly general audience than the late John Paul II no mean magnet ever managed. During the Great Jubilee of 2000, John Paul brought 40,000 to 45,000 people a week into St. Peter's Square. Over the past two months, Benedict has regularly pulled crowds of more than 50,000; on Oct. 15 the square overflowed with 150,000 pilgrims, many of them Italian schoolchildren who had just made their first communion (the idea of a conversation with children was the pope's). Some of this extraordinary turnout reflects the 20,000 pilgrims who come to pray at John Paul II's grave every day. But that, in turn, underlines the dynamic continuity between Benedict and his great predecessor.
Though he lacks John Paul's electric public personality, Benedict has an engaging style, offering the demanding yet accessible Gospel of a theologian who has mastered the complexities of doctrine. His composure in public is also telling. When it was suggested to the pope's secretary, at the audience for those Italian children, that it was time to give the pope his text, the secretary responded, "He doesn't need a text; he's got it in his heart." (When Benedict does preach from notes, however, his homilies are handcrafted.)
Benedict XVI has met, cordially, with representatives of the "progressive" and reactionary wings of Roman Catholic dissent. He's dropped hints about holding a joint synod with Orthodox bishops something that hasn't happened in more than a millennium. He's taken a hands-on approach to the appointment of Catholic bishops throughout the world, influenced perhaps in part by his experience with malfeasant bishops who turned sexual scandal into crisis in the United States. He's challenged Islamic leaders to take a more publicly critical stance toward violence in the name of God, and he's challenged Europe to recover its greatness by rediscovering its Christian roots. (Benedict's forthcoming book on the subject, Without Roots, is coauthored with a nonbelieving Italian intellectual who shares the pope's diagnosis of the secularist sources of Europe's civilizational malaise.)
Interpreting the coming papacy accurately is going to require a determined effort to get beyond the "liberal/conservative" taxonomy of all issues Catholic. The Vatican is at work on a document concerning candidates for the priesthood who wrestle with homoerotic temptations and passions; should Benedict approve a policy requiring that such candidates have demonstrated a capacity to live chastely, the conventional impulse will be to interpret him as a persecutor of homosexuals. The truth, however, will be more complicated: at heart and in practice, Benedict is a reformer who wants all candidates to demonstrate the ability, with God's grace, of living the challenge of celibate chastity. Chastity, Benedict will likely remind the church, is a virtue for everyone gay or straight, clergy or laity.
Benedict XVI's shrewdness as a manager and reformer of the Roman Curia remains to be tested. So does his judgment in people. In his first seven months, though, the man who never wanted to be pope has shown the unflappability which comes from a deep spiritual life. That suggests that the quiet surprises of Benedict XVI will continue.
George Weigel "A Pope of Quiet Surprises." Newsweek (November 7, 2005).
Reprinted with permission of George Weigel. George Weigel is the author, most recently, of God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, published by HarperCollins.
George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.
Copyright © 2005 George
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