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Pope completes first year as Church leader

Kelly Meehan | Thursday, April 20, 2006

One year ago Wednesday, white smoke billowed from the small chimney atop the Sistine Chapel as the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica tolled – a beacon for the world marking the introduction of the new leader of the Catholic Church.

The world looked on in anxious anticipation as Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez announced on April 19, 2005 that after only two days of conclave meetings Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany would become the next pope.

The discussion and debate surrounding the leadership role of the next Holy Father that ensued in the 17 short days after Pope John Paul II’s death reached its peak as the traditionally conservative cardinal became Pope Benedict XVI – the leader of the Catholic world.

Controversy swirled amongst Catholics and non-Catholics alike as they questioned the leadership role a then 78-year-old Church doctrine-abiding pope could provide the complex and ever-changing modern world.

When Benedict XVI was chosen as pope, many experts said it would be difficult to lead in the shadow of John Paul II’s impressive papal legacy.

One year later, however, Benedict XVI has come into his own without attempting to fill the shoes of John Paul II in any direct or obvious way, said Notre Dame law professor Vincent Rougeau.

Rougeau said the pope’s sole encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est,” is a “beautiful and masterful response to those of his critics and supporters who attempted to link his ascension to the papacy to their own agendas.”

“What ‘Deus Caritas Est’ suggests to me is that Benedict will use his incredible scholarly knowledge and deep love for Catholic tradition to draw Catholics back to fundamental ideas of the gospels and more deeply into the spirit of the Second Vatican Council,” he said.

Theology professor Lawrence Cunningham said the pope’s encyclical has been “characterized by being relatively brief, profoundly positive and deeply theological.”

Cunningham said Benedict XVI’s actions and writings indicate he is not intending to fill the shoes of John Paul II.

“He is not going to emphasize his own person,” he said. “He is not going to put forth his own personality – his instincts are not that way.”

Benedict XVI is not as “mediagenic” as John Paul II, said Cunningham, describing the pope’s decision not to become a big public persona a “considered judgment.”

After initially being labeled “God’s Rottweiler,” Benedict XVI’s emerging “softer side” has surprised many critics.

“I think that he has surprised a lot of people who thought he would bring the same toughness to the papacy that he had a reputation for when he was in the congregation … but this was not the case,” Cunningham said.

One influential aspect of John Paul II’s papacy maintained by Benedict XVI is the aim to unite religions throughout the world.

“He gives every indication of being a pope that is going to be concerned with the life of the Church,” Cunningham said, “But he is going to reach out to other religious bodies, both Christian and non-Christian.”

Rougeau said an idea Benedict XVI “stressed in the encyclical that … should be an important reflection point for all of us at Notre Dame is the fundamental relationship of love for others to our love to God.”

Dillon rector Father Paul Doyle said that simplistic, yet powerful focus on love reflects the message of the Easter season.

“I think it is beautiful that he started off his first encyclical with ‘God is Love,'” he said. “He is a very intelligent and articulate theologian, which is a great thing to have in a holy leader.”

Doyle said he believes Benedict XVI is off to a successful start, despite facing initial criticism and following one the most influential popes of all time.

“I think there are people who wish John Paul II would be pope for eternity,” he said, “And I think [Benedict XVI] is a beautiful success so far.”

Although Benedict XVI was approximately 20 years older than John Paul II upon being named to the papacy, Doyle said he believes the age difference will not hurt his leadership ability.

“I am not sure we’re ready for two 27-year popes,” he said. “It takes an extraordinary person to do that well, and I don’t think those types come along with every election.”

Theology professor Timothy Matovina said Benedict XVI has had a “quiet start [without] any earth-shaking initiatives.”

“For following someone who is almost impossible to follow, it seems like things have been rather smooth,” he said.

Matovina said Benedict XVI’s main critics believe he would have initiated changes at a quicker pace.

Benedict XVI’s papal term will likely not endure as long as John Paul II’s, he said, which led many people to believe he would work quickly to produce Vatican statements to foster great changes – something that has yet to occur.

Cunningham said it was suspected that these changes would include major moves to reorganize the internal structure and personnel of the Vatican, which would benefit the economy and efficiency from within.

Fisher rector Father Robert Moss said one of the best changes Benedict XVI has made during the past year has been the appointment of several new cardinals, which broke down the Italian majority.

“He is doing an overall very good job, but I don’t see many great changes,” he said. “I think people thought he would reverse John Paul II’s policies, but he is not going to do that.”

But with the leadership change, the pope’s public persona has shifted. Visitors tend to no longer visit Saint Peter’s Square to “see the pope through the window,” but rather “listen to the eloquent and articulate words of Pope Benedict,” Matovina said.

Benedict XVI takes more time for himself, keeping an empty schedule each Tuesday, and strives to appeal to people’s intellect and deep faith, he said.

Moss said on a visit to Rome last summer – just a few months into Benedict’s papal term – he noticed that the city had an empty feeling to it, a reminder of the void left by death of John Paul II.

But that has changed, Moss said, as Benedict XVI “seems to have grown into the job very, very well” through his sincerity in listening to the people and ability to clearly emphasize and fulfill their yearning for a deeper understanding of faith through his eloquent speaking.

“I thought Rome was somewhat empty without John Paul II, but I don’t think that is as true or noticeable anymore,” he said. “People are satisfied that we have a pope again.”