In praise of Benedict

  • April 8, 2010
On April 19 the Catholic Church Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate the fifth anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s election as pontiff. And, yes, we mean celebrate. Contrary to the smears rampant in the secular media of late, there is much to applaud about the first half decade of Benedict’s papacy.

The mainstream tendency, of course, is to try to define Benedict by the sinful deeds of abuser priests and see-no-evil bishops of the past 30 years. And that is a shame because the vicious headlines and apparent “get-Benedict” mentality rampant in the media can cause even faithful Catholics to become blind to the achievements of an active and productive Pope.

Benedict has been busier than many predicted when, already three years past ordinary retirement age for bishops, he was elevated from Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to become Pope at age 78. Now well into his eighties, age has not significantly slowed him down.

He has been a prolific writer, traveller, speaker and champion of new communication tools, including the Internet. The Vatican may never satisfy critic pleas to operate transparently, but Benedict has demonstrated an uncommon openness by reaching out to Catholics and other faith groups. He has met with victims of abuse and spoken and written frankly on the topic. Also, significantly, he has championed rapprochement with Jews, Muslims and other Christian churches.

An academic, Benedict has never stopped writing. In addition to a best-selling book, Jesus of Nazareth,  he has authored three encyclicals around the theme of love and faith. The third, Charity in Truth, generated wide acclaim as it called for the world recession to spur economic reform based on Christian values of social justice and charity.

His travels have seen him visit 13 countries on six continents. A recurring theme has been bridge building. He pledged to Africans that the church was an ally in their struggle against injustice. In Australia and the United States he offered regret and comfort to victims of sex abuse. He prayed with Jews at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and with Muslims at mosques in Turkey and Amman. He addressed the United Nations in New York and grieved with survivors at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.

There have been missteps. He offended Muslims by remarks in 2006 and angered Jews in 2009 by lifting the excommunication of a bishop who, unknown to Benedict, was a Holocaust denier. But in each case Benedict responded humbly and contritely and recommitted himself to the challenge of inter-religious fence-mending.

Benedict, of course, was preceded as pontiff by the beloved Pope John Paul II. It is never easy to follow a popular figure, particularly one on a fast track to sainthood. But Benedict has proven himself to be a strong leader for the church — despite what the headlines say.

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