Scholar, pastor, enigma: German pope defies easy caricature

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Americans will soon have their first close-up encounter with Pope Benedict XVI, a figure who, in the minds of many, is still coming into focus.

Some view him as a vigilant pastor, one who has used virtually every medium possible -- books and speeches, sermons and encyclicals -- to guide Catholics back to the essential message of Jesus and the Gospel.

Others see the German pope as a doctrinal overseer, policing the church's moral boundaries on issues like end-of-life medical care, marriage and homosexuality.

For many non-Christians, Pope Benedict is an enigma, a man who has visited a mosque and prayed toward Mecca with his Muslim host, yet who repeatedly speaks about the need to proclaim Christ as the unique savior for all people.

He is hailed as a liturgical hero by traditionalist Catholics for having relaxed restrictions on the Tridentine Mass and introduced touches of antiquity in his own liturgies.

The "real Benedict" no doubt has some elements of all these partial portraits, but in a combination that defies easy caricature. This is a pope who brings depth of thought to every word or action, in ways that are not entirely predictable.

He once described heaven as "plunging into the ocean of infinite love," has called saints the real revolutionaries, and compared receiving the Eucharist to nuclear fission -- a "chain of intimate explosions of good over evil in the human heart."

One of the pope's most important themes is that when modern society tries to do without God it opens the door to the exaltation of science and technology, economic selfishness, ideological excess and misuse of freedom.

With equal force, he has maintained that religion cannot sever its links to reason without slipping into fanaticism.

U.S. author and scholar George Weigel said Pope Benedict has thus taken aim at the two great problems defining international public life in the early 21st century: religious faith that rejects reason and reason that has lost faith in itself.

Those two points were the subject of the pope's address in Regensburg, Germany, in 2006. Among Muslims, the speech provoked an initial uproar, but has eventually led to a major new dialogue initiative between the Vatican and Islamic moderates.

Regensburg was the first instance of what some have called Pope Benedict's tendency to make provocative statements that later need clarification or qualification. Other examples include his speeches on indigenous peoples in Brazil and on the Holocaust at the Nazi death camp Auschwitz in Poland.

"The pope is really trying to speak about very difficult issues, so sometimes clarifications will be requested. And one could say in his favor that he is prepared to clarify," said Jesuit Father Christian W. Troll, a German professor of Islamic studies who has known the pope for many years.

Father Troll said, however, that the pope does not always accurately foresee how his speeches -- sometimes delivered in a "professorial" style -- will be played by the mass media.

Those who have worked with the pope through the years say that when it comes to the United States, he is surprisingly well-informed.

"He has an amazing power of retention. He reads an enormous amount. Still, I don't know how he does it," said U.S. Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, who studied under the future pope in the 1970s.

While in the United States, Pope Benedict will celebrate the third anniversary of his election. As inevitable as that event may seem in retrospect, his path to the papacy was long and indirect.

Joseph Ratzinger was born April 16, 1927, in the Bavarian town of Marktl am Inn, the third and youngest child of a police officer, Joseph Sr., and his wife, Maria.

Joseph joined his brother, Georg, at a minor seminary in 1939. Like other young students, he was automatically enrolled in the Hitler Youth program, but soon stopped going to meetings. He was conscripted into the army and, as the war drew to a close in 1945, deserted his unit and returned home. When the U.S. military arrived, he was arrested with others who had served in the army and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp for a few months.

He returned to the seminary late in 1945 and was ordained six years later.

In a meeting with young people in 2006, the pope said witnessing the brutality of the Nazi regime helped convince him to become a priest. But he also had to overcome some doubts, he said. For one thing, he asked himself whether he "could faithfully live celibacy" his entire life. He also recognized that his real leanings were toward theology and wondered whether he had the qualities of a good pastor and the ability "to be simple with the simple people."

After serving in a parish for less than a year, he returned to theology studies, writing his doctoral thesis on St. Augustine. He embarked on a teaching career at universities in Bonn, Munster, Tubingen and Regensburg.

At the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, a young Father Ratzinger made important contributions as a theological expert and embraced the council's early work and its bold approach to renewal.

But he began to have misgivings in later council sessions. In particular, he warned of an emerging anti-Roman bias and the idea of a "church from below" run on a parliamentary model.

In 1977, Pope Paul VI named him archbishop of Munich and made him a cardinal. In 1981 Pope John Paul II called him to the Vatican to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Over the next 24 years, he wielded great influence as the Vatican responded to a wide array of challenges, including liberation theology, dissent from church teachings and pressure for women's ordination.

When Pope John Paul died, Cardinal Ratzinger celebrated his funeral and presided over daily meetings of cardinals before the conclave. Veteran Vatican-watchers sensed momentum, and by the time white smoke came out of the Sistine Chapel smokestack April 19, 2005, few were surprised at the cardinals' choice.

From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Benedict made it clear that he would not try to match Pope John Paul's charismatic style. He depersonalized the papacy, saying a pope's task is to make shine "not his own light, but that of Christ."

Yet Pope Benedict has drawn record crowds to the Vatican, and many find his gentle and low-key approach appealing.

"He seems to have a pastoral sense about him ... I feel that he understands the role of shepherd," Rose Marie Lombard, a pilgrim from Rochester, N.Y., said at one of the pope's first public appearances.

Pope Benedict cut back on the heavy calendar of papal events that had become routine under Pope John Paul. It soon became clear that the new pope's primary goals were about faith, not administration.

Repeatedly, he has warned that "a world emptied of God, a world that has forgotten God, loses life and falls into a culture of death."

It is a theme the pope has brought to bear on all kinds of social and political issues, including poverty, abortion, bioethical research, marriage, consumerism and environmental degradation.

To Catholics, he has emphasized that a personal encounter with Jesus is the key to everything the church does and the factor that ensures Christian actions will have impact in the world.

He also has insisted that every Christian is duty-bound to evangelize and announce Christ as the unique savior to all people. In the perennial internal church debate over dialogue and mission, Pope Benedict clearly comes down on the side of mission.

Much of the pope's pastoral strategy is back to basics, with weekly audience talks on the apostles, the saints and the early Christian theologians -- a kind of "Catholicism 101."

His book, "Jesus of Nazareth," which has sold more than 2 million copies, was written in a more challenging style. Its central point, however, is simple: Jesus was God, not merely a moralist or a political revolutionary or a social reformer.

The reaction to all this has been mixed. Many of those who listen to the pope in person or bother to read his talks or documents come away with a favorable impression.

"Today he spoke about Lent in a simple and very clear way. I understood it and appreciated it -- what he's preaching, really, is the heart of the Gospel," said Claudio Faltracco, a pilgrim from northern Italy who attended a general audience in February.

But Pope Benedict does not filter especially well through the mass media. He makes headlines primarily when there's potential for controversy, but not when he's drawing lessons from the lives of the early saints.

Three years is not a long time for measuring papal success or failure, but a list of accomplishments for Pope Benedict would have to include:

-- His 2006 encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love"), which described the faith as charity in action.

-- The 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics, which indicated a path of unity for the church and challenged the government to a real dialogue.

-- Seven foreign trips, including an interreligious pilgrimage to Turkey, where he prayed in a mosque and defused a growing crisis with Islam.

-- A series of small but telling liturgical changes, including the relaxation of the restrictions on the Tridentine Mass, the appointment of a new papal liturgist and a return to more traditional vestments and altar decorations.

-- The naming of 38 new cardinals from 20 countries.

Those who have watched this pontificate develop say 2008 may be a watershed year. With a crucial dialogue date with Muslims at the Vatican, trips to three continents, a Synod of Bishops on the Bible, and a jubilee year dedicated to St. Paul, the pope will have a chance to stand in the spotlight and give the world a clearer picture of his person and his mission.

Copyright © 2008 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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