A Pope of Quiet Surprises

Published November 7, 2005


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.” Was this, perhaps, the smile of a man who had finally gotten something he wanted? No, for Ratzinger most certainly didn’t want to be pope. He thought himself too old for the job, and ill suited for an office that required greater administrative skills than he thought he possessed. After Pope John Paul II refused his resignation three times, Ratzinger, 78, was also looking forward to a return to his native Bavaria to take up his work as a theologian. So what the world saw on the afternoon of April 19 was not the smile of a man who had achieved a great ambition. Rather, having accepted the decision of a lightning-swift conclave after no small amount of internal wrestling with God’s will (and his own), Benedict XVI’s happiness was that of a man who had been liberated to be himself after subordinating his personality for 23 years to the work John Paul II had asked him to do.

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.)

Then there was Benedict’s striking rapport with a million young adults at August’s World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany—another surprise for some. Yet, as a professor, Ratzinger had inspired passionate loyalty in his doctoral students, and like John Paul, Benedict knows that to be young is to yearn for a challenge to heroism. So there was no patronizing and no pandering, but rather solid teaching and the example of a pope in silent prayer before the Holy Eucharist.

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 is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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