The Pope’s ‘final leg’
Pope Benedict XVI marked two milestones this week: He turned 85 last Monday and marked the seventh anniversary of his pontificate yesterday, making him the oldest pope in more than 100 years and one of only six popes in 500 years to reign past the age of 85. Elected when he was 78, Benedict was and still is not expected to reign long. In “Light of the World,” his 2010 book, he said that if a pope was “physically, psychologically or spiritually” unable to carry out his duties, he was obliged to step down. Yesterday he alluded to his own mortality during his homily in his birthday Mass: “I am facing the final leg of the path of my life and I don’t know what’s ahead.” But like John Paul II who labored as pope amid the infirmities of old age, Benedict indicated he would continue to lead the Roman Catholic Church in “God’s light,” which, he said, “is stronger than any darkness.”
Although living on borrowed time in an era of great change, the Pope is expected to address key issues facing the Church, many of them difficult and divisive, such as women’s ordination and optional celibacy among the clergy. The ban on women priests and compulsory celibacy are seen to have issued from the alleged patriarchy and clericalism of the Catholic hierarchy, which may have also resulted in child abuse by the clergy and a decline in vocations. But other Christian churches that have married priests and women clergy have also experienced a precipitous drop in vocations and their own share of sex-abuse cases. The Anglican and Episcopalian churches continue to be afflicted by dissension, apathy, aging congregations, and negligible vocations. Thus, the Church of Rome shares with the Church of England and the other Christian denominations of the West the same problems of enervation and decline. Benedict has made the renewal of the European Catholic Church the centerpiece of his papacy, and he has done this largely through intellectual engagement with the secular forces of Europe that deny the foundational Christian contribution to Western civilization.
He is perfectly suited for the battle. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was a member of the prestigious Académie Française, where he was inducted in 1992 in the section for moral and political sciences by a country known for keeping God out of the secular realm. He has debated with European intellectuals like the German sociologist Jurgen Habermas. But while conserving the Church’s legacy in Europe, he is also looking to the future. He presided over the World Youth Day celebrations in Australia in 2008 and, more revealingly, in Spain in 2011, which saw two million youths mainly from heavily secularized Europe participating.
Benedict has also provided a counterweight to radical Islamism, criticizing its violent tendencies, as in his controversial Regensburg address in 2006, and generally working for the incorporation of rationality in Islamic teaching. “The important thing here is to remain in close contact with all the currents within Islam that are open to, and capable of, dialogue, so as to give a change of mentality to happen even where Islamism still couples a claim to truth with violence,” he said. His visit to Lebanon this year is expected to boost his engagement with Islam and reaffirm the Asia Minor roots of Christianity.
The Pope has likewise made credible gestures at engaging with the Catholic Church of the New World. His recent visit to Mexico, violent scene of last century’s secular battles, showed that Catholicism remains culturally entrenched in the world’s second largest Catholic country. His visit to communist Cuba may be seen as an effort by the Church to engage with Marxist modernity, and nothing could be more emblematic of this historically tortuous rendezvous than his meeting with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who asked him for copies of his theological books. He will next go to Brazil for World Youth Day 2012 in order to make his presence felt in the world’s largest Catholic country.
Thus has the Pope fostered the catholicity of the Catholic communion. On Oct. 21 he will canonize Pedro Calungsod of the Philippines and Kateri Takakwitha, a Mohawk and the first Native American to be raised to the altar. All of this, of course, will not sugarcoat the problems facing Benedict and the Church. But like Saint Paul, this Pope is not one to shirk from “the good fight.” His long-time secretary, Msgr. Georg Gaenswein, describes him as “a man of great courage” who “doesn’t fear delicate questions or confrontations for the good of the Church and faithful.”
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