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A reluctant leader, Pope Benedict leaves legacy of ‘new evangelization’
Where Pope John Paul II was charismatic, loved the spotlight and became famous for grand gestures, Benedict, despite his “God’s Rottweiler” nickname, was known to be bookish and private — he later said he prayed not to be elected pope but “evidently, this time He didn’t listen.”
Benedict, who formally ends his papacy Thursday after his stunning resignation announcement eariler this month, remains “very much a professor, a man of prayer, a man of study, his own demeanor is very humble. He doesn’t find himself at ease in being in the public spotlight,” said the Rev. Mark Morozowich, dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University in Washington.
The frail pope, the first to retire as Bishop of Rome in 600 years, received an emotional and very public send-off as some 150,000 well-wishers flooded St. Peter's Square at the Vatican to hear his farewell address. The often reserved Benedict took a long victory lap around the square, stopping the Popemobile to kiss and bless a half-dozen babies along the way.
“To love the church means also to have the courage to take difficult, painful decisions, always keeping the good of the church in mind, not oneself,” Benedict said to thundering applause from the crowd and from dozens of cardinals who have descended on Rome to choose his successor in the coming weeks.
Despite lacking the public charisma of his predecessor, in fields ranging from the liturgy, ecumenical relations and theology to the handling of sex-abuse cases and other scandals that hit the church in recent years, Benedict in just eight years was able to carve out his own legacy, in significant part by continuing John Paul’s work in different ways.
Benedict “was John Paul’s right-hand man for 24 years” as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s chief orthodoxy overseer, said Monsignor Paul McPartlan, professor of systematic theology and ecumenism at Catholic University. “There’s a big difference in style and personality, but in terms of core commitments there’s a profound continuity between the two.”
While John Paul was raised as a Pole under Nazi occupation or Communist tyranny, Joseph Ratzinger spent most of his adult life in postwar West Germany, where secularism and consumer society held sway.
In a homily shortly after John Paul’s death, Benedict identified “the dictatorship of relativism” as the principal problem facing both society and the modern church. While it “recognizes nothing as definitive,” it turns “the self and its desires” into the only basis for truth and for action.
“One of the great themes of Pope Benedict’s pontificate has been to show the importance that reason has for a life of faith and the importance faith has for all of those who use their minds,” said Monsignor McPartlan.
To counter those trends in the rich, secularized West, Benedict promoted “the new evangelization.” In deliberate contrast with the image of spreading the Gospel to new areas, the “new evangelization” seeks to reawaken and revive it in nations, especially in Europe, that have been culturally Christian for centuries.
Although it was John Paul who first popularized the term, Benedict gave it new force, creating a separate council to promote it within the Roman Curia. Dedicating the council in June 2010, Benedict noted that “the process of secularization has produced a serious crisis of the sense of the Christian faith and role of the Church” that has produced “a sort of ‘eclipse of the sense of God.’”
“Very fearlessly and courageously he’s taken the Gospel right into the public square” in numerous public addresses at secular parliaments and universities, said Monsignor McPartlan.
As pope, Benedict wrote three encyclicals, and all of them at least touched on secularism and this modern crisis in some way — critiquing modern attitudes on “pure sex” and love; on misplaced faith in modern secular ideologies; and on the limits of capitalism when it tries to do without “brotherhood among individuals and peoples.”
Although it did not register in the popular press, one of the biggest changes of Benedict’s papacy could be his impact on the Catholic liturgy.
In 2007, Benedict loosened restrictions on celebration of the traditional Latin Mass, putting the freedom to determine which Mass to use in the hands of individual priests, rather than local bishops. Traditionalists had long complained that bishops had not been as free with their permission.
But typically, Benedict said in a letter that his decision was an implementation of the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965 and not a break with it. He used the letter to decry “deformations of the liturgy” because of what he said was a misguided sense that the Second Vatican Council was “authorizing or even requiring creativity.”
Cardinal Ratzinger went into the Second Vatican Council with a reputation as a reformer, but soon came to the conclusion that the post-Conciliar church was taking the teachings to mean things they did not and implementing proposed reforms poorly. He became known for urging a “reform of the reform” in liturgical matters.
Although the work began under John Paul, Benedict approved a new translation of the Mass for the English-speaking world, which took effect in December 2011.
Beyond his work within the church, Benedict’s legacy will be judged in part by his handling of the church’s sex-abuse crisis, both because of the decades of abuse itself and the role the church’s bishops played in covering up for abusive priests.
In 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger was granted oversight over all cases involving sex-abuse claims against church officials, despite his office’s primary task being the intellectual task of orthodoxy oversight. He got a first-hand account of the scope of the problem as reports of abuse were sent to his Vatican office.
“He called it his ‘penitential Friday’ because he would read the files that would be coming in on allegations about clerical sexual abuse. He saw basically everything from around the globe,” said Christopher Ruddy, associate professor of historical and systematic theology at Catholic University.
Once he became pope, Benedicts handling of the sex-abuse crisis, though it drew criticism, was also widely considered to be far more aggressive than that of John Paul II.
Unlike John Paul, he personally met with victims of clergy sex abuse on several of his foreign trips, including one to the U.S. He also issued an unprecedented apology to Irelands Catholics over decades of systematic sex abuse and told guilty clergy to “submit yourselves to the demands of justice.”
Benedict also moved strongly against the Legion of Christ, ordering a full-scale reworking of an order that had enjoyed the favor of John Paul but whose now-repudiated founder, Father Marcial Maciel, had serially abused seminarians and fathered at least three children.
“A consensus has emerged that he has been proactive. I don’t think, obviously, everything has been perfect, but I think he has done more than anyone else in Rome on this,” Mr. Ruddy said. “He was attuned to this and out in front of it in a way that really no one else in Rome was. As pope, the relative quickness that he moved on the case of Father Maciel was proof of that.”
But not all Catholics approved of Benedict, including many liberal Catholics who felt his policies were contrary to the “spirit of Vatican II.” One oft-cited example was an investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that accused the principal U.S. umbrella group for the largest orders of nuns of “radical feminism” and put it under the control of an archbishop.
Other groups have openly called for changing numerous church teachings related to sex and gender — homosexuality, the male priesthood and priestly celibacy — and have called the Vatican illegitimate as a result of its refusal to agree.
“As Roman Catholics worldwide prepare for the conclave, we are reminded that the current system remains an ‘old boys club’ and does not allow for women’s voices to participate in the decision of the next leader of our church,” said Erin Saiz Hanna, head of the Women’s Ordination Conference, a group that ordains women in defiance of church doctrine.
The Vatican is also reeling from another round of scandals over its bank, which led to, among other things, the arrest last year of the pope’s butler for leaking documents about financial corruption. Benedict has tried to improve the Vaticans financial management, which has been viewed as corrupt for decades.
In an address last week in Spain, Archbishop Miguel Maury Buendia said that Benedict also had “carried out a cleansing of the episcopate.”
According to a report Wednesday at the Catholic EWTN channel, Archbishop Buendia, who is the papal nuncio to several Central Asia countries, said the pope would frequently request resignations in response to mismanagement or immorality, and nearly always had them accepted.
“This Pope has removed two or three bishops per month throughout the world because either the accounts in their dioceses were a mess or their discipline was a disaster,” he said. “The nuncio went to these bishops and said, ‘The Holy Father is asking you for the good of the Church to resign from your post.’”
Mr. Ruddy said that Benedict has “created a good legacy for the next pope to build on and for bishops around the world to look to say ‘we need to deal with this.’ If the pope has met with survivors of sexual abuse as he did in America and around the world … this is something that sets a tone that I hope the next pope will build on.”
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