Benedict XVI leads faithful back to basics

By  John Thavis, Catholic News Service
  • April 18, 2010
Pope Benedict XVIEditor’s Note: April 19 marks the fifth anniversary of Benedict XVI’s selection as pontiff. Headlines of recent weeks have focussed attention on the church’s clerical sex abuse scandal. That issue is covered elsewhere in this edition. Here we analyse Benedict’s first half decade, a busy and productive period for the now 83-year-old Pope.

VATICAN CITY - At the five-year mark, two key objectives of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate have come into clear focus: creating space for religion in the public sphere and space for God in private lives.

In hundreds of speeches and homilies, in three encyclicals, on 14 foreign trips, during synods of bishops and even through new web sites, the German pontiff has confronted what he calls 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 has proposed Christianity as a religion of love, not rules. Its core mission, he has said repeatedly, is to help people accept God’s love and share it, recognizing that true love involves a willingness to make sacrifices.

Elected April 19, 2005, Pope Benedict has surprised those who expected a doctrinaire disciplinarian. As universal pastor, he has 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 Pope Benedict’s quiet teaching mission has been frequently overshadowed by problems and crises that have grabbed headlines, provoked criticism of the Church and left Benedict 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 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 in recent weeks, fallout from the priestly sex abuse crisis has muted the celebratory atmosphere at the Vatican and placed papal aides on the defensive.

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. Then he began a bridge-building effort with Muslim scholars that eventually led to a major new chapter in Vatican-Muslim dialogue.

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 calls “innovation in continuity.”

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. In the same letter, however, he expressed sadness that some Catholics seemed willing to believe he was changing direction on Catholic-Jewish relations and were ready to “attack me with open hostility.”

Although he never planned to imitate his globetrotting predecessor, Pope Benedict has travelled to six continents on 14 foreign trips during his first five years, including his April 17-18 visit to Malta, the first of five trips planned for 2010.

The Pope’s most demanding trip was his Holy Land pilgrimage in 2009, which took him to holy places in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Visiting a mosque in Jordan, the Pope was able to build more bridges with Muslim communities in the Middle East.

In Jerusalem, where he was thrust into the politics of the long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he prodded both sides, supporting Palestinians’ right to statehood but urging them to reject terrorism.

The list of Pope Benedict’s other accomplishments includes documents, meetings and spiritual initiatives:

His three encyclicals have placed love and charity at the centre 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 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.

The Pope has presided over three synods of bishops: on the Eucharist in 2005, on Scripture in 2008 and on Africa in 2009, and has convened one on the Middle East for October.  

The “Year of St. Paul” in 2008-2009 familiarized Catholics with the man considered the model of Christian conversion and the archetypal evangelizer.

In calling the “Year for Priests,” which ends in June, the Pope said the Church must acknowledge that some priests have done great harm to others, but must also thank God for the gifts the majority of priests have given to the church and the world.

The Pope’s letter to the church in China in 2008 was a landmark attempt to reconcile the divided Catholic community there and launch a platform for dialogue with civil authorities.

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