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VATICAN LETTER May-20-2005 (900 words) Backgrounder and analysis. xxxi

In first month, Benedict places distinctive mark on papacy

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- He began under the sign of continuity, but in his first month Pope Benedict XVI has already placed his own distinctive mark on the papacy.

His public appearances, while generating enormous enthusiasm, have been designed more to provoke thought than to please crowds. This will be a teaching pope, and his lessons draw heavily on Scripture.

The new pope has kept Pope John Paul II's team of Vatican officials. But in his first major appointment, he picked an American, Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco, as his successor at the doctrinal congregation -- a bold move that gratified many U.S. Catholics and lessened European influence in the Roman Curia.

In waiving the five-year waiting period for the start of Pope John Paul's sainthood cause, the pope showed he was listening to the popular voice of the church and recognized that rules are sometimes made to be set aside.

Two other decisions hinted at Pope Benedict's governing style:

-- He opted not to preside at beatification liturgies, ending a 34-year practice. Although papal beatifications had become routine, the pope and others thought they created misunderstandings about the sainthood process.

-- He shortened the October Synod of Bishops. In the past, the pope had said synods tend to exalt the role of bishops as delegates of local churches rather than as shepherds of their own flocks.

The pope's decisions and talks since his election April 19 seemed to show a desire to pare back to the essentials -- at least as much as possible for a 21st-century pope.

At the same time, Pope Benedict understands that in many ways he is expected to be a "pope for all people." In his first month, he spoke with various heads of state, international diplomats, Christian and non-Christian representatives, journalists, bishops from Africa and Asia, members of Rome's Catholic community, clergy, curial officials, pilgrim groups from around the world and, of course, the College of Cardinals.

At his weekly general audiences, the pope has grown increasingly relaxed with big crowds. He seems to genuinely enjoy riding his open jeep around the square, standing and waving as he holds onto a bar with one hand.

After his first general audience, the pope shook the hands of nearby bishops and left the scene. Now he makes it a point to seek out the sick and lay people who have come for a personal blessing or to bring him gifts. He doesn't rush and usually has a few words for each.

The new pope's reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Many visitors are impressed by his easy and direct style, others by the simple fact that the church once again has a pope who can move through a crowd or improvise a talk.

Pope Benedict's talks and sermons have not been the high theology of books and conferences. Instead, he has focused on the basics during his first month: the church's evangelizing mission, the danger of losing sight of God and the priority of human life issues in modern society.

On several occasions, particularly around the feast of Pentecost, he has explained the church's purpose by recalling the words and witness of apostolic times. Even his nonliturgical talks, like his address to Sri Lankan bishops, have been built around passages from the New Testament.

The pope has not dumbed down his message. His sermon on Pentecost, for example, examined the relationship of human freedom, the gift of the law on Mount Sinai, the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the church's mission and the Eucharist. But woven through the homily were straightforward statements about people's real limitations and the recognition that faith is often a struggle.

"We continually close our doors; we continually want to feel secure and do not want to be disturbed by others and by God," the pope said. But Christ will come for us, he said, just as he passed through the closed doors to reach his disciples at Pentecost.

Likewise, on the feast of the Ascension, he offered a simple reflection on Christ's continued presence in the world, saying: "The Lord is always within hearing. We can inwardly draw away from him. We can live turning our backs on him. But he always waits for us and is always close to us."

So far, Pope Benedict has spoken mostly about the essentials of church life and relatively little about contemporary social issues. Appeals for victims of disasters or violence, which made for easy headlines under Pope John Paul, seem to have disappeared.

The new pope is also meeting with fewer groups, especially from Italy; such meetings used to fill the calendar of his predecessors. And so far he does not seem to feel the need to send messages or give speeches to participants of every meeting at the Vatican.

Pope Benedict may have given some clues to his style of papacy in his 1987 book, "Church, Ecumenism and Politics." He warned about "the limits and dangers of activism" in church governance, which he said risks getting in the way of the Holy Spirit.

He said it was worth remembering that the only true head of the church is Christ, and "we are all merely his tools." The real task of the pastor, he said, is "to stretch out the sail of our faith ... so that the Holy Spirit can fill it with his breath."


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