This past Wednesday marked the first anniversary of the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. At 78, he was the oldest pope elected in 275 years and the first German one in nearly 1,000 years. Ratzinger was probably the most well-known cardinal ever to become Pope and the past year has been a particularly dramatic transition for him.
Many people forget that popes don't play by the rule books of politicians, who often use their first 100 days to leave their mark. The quiet, academic Pope Benedict has spent the past year showing the world the gentle side of the man who was the Vatican's chief doctrinal enforcer for nearly 25 years. He no longer has to control the teaching and censor the teachers! Now he is responsible for spreading the Christian message.
Quietly, slowly and decisively, in more than 200 sermons and speeches to a little over four million people at numerous gatherings, Benedict has engaged the faithful and the wider society on the fundamental issues of truth, freedom, faith and human dignity. Those who had a negative image of him have been surprised that he could be quite charming.
His significant accomplishments are on several fronts:
Ecumenically, Benedict has pushed hard for improvement in relations with Orthodox churches, which split from Rome in the Great Schism of 1054. He is committed to continued good relations with Jews - a great legacy of his predecessor, John Paul II. Benedict has strongly denounced the Holocaust and will visit the former death camp at Auschwitz next month.
As a teacher, he has turned to Scripture far more than doctrine, making connections between the early Christians and modern folk struggling to live their faith. His only major document so far has been an encyclical focusing on what he called the foundation of the Christian message, "God is love."
Benedict has also tackled contemporary social and political issues by emphasizing a few main principles - that human rights rest on human dignity, that people come before profits, that the right to life is an ancient measure of humanity and not just a Catholic teaching, and that efforts to exclude God from civil affairs are corroding modern society. "A world emptied of God, a world that has forgotten God, loses life and falls into a culture of death," he said in a talk last month.
Ultimately for Benedict, Christianity is an encounter with beauty; the possibility of a more authentic, beautiful, more exciting life.
One of his great innovations has been badly needed: He listens to questions in public and replies off the cuff, without a script. He did this with the priests of the little mountain diocese of Aosta where he was vacationing last July; with children who had received their first communion in St. Peter's Square in October; with his priests of the diocese of Rome in March - and most recently, on April 6, with tens of thousands of young people preparing for World Youth Day 2006.
On each occasion, his words have had a strong effect on those present. Even the children listened to him attentively. It is unfortunate that little or nothing of these important dialogues has reached the general public.
Some would say John Paul spoke more with gestures, whereas Benedict speaks with words. The former wrote the headlines, the latter is writing the novel. John Paul seemed to concentrate his efforts globally; Benedict seems to look more toward Europe. However, from the doctrinal and ecclesial points of view, there is absolute continuity in their missions.