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VATICAN LETTER Nov-23-2005 (1,000 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Benedict's papacy: Running on all cylinders, but still gearing up

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate was running on all cylinders in November.

Seven months after the pope's election, the Vatican was humming with internal policy meetings, public conferences, document preparation and liturgical celebrations.

The pope himself, although he stayed mostly behind the scenes, held important private meetings with political leaders from Iraq, Israel and Italy. But he continued to cut back on the group meetings and speeches that consumed much of his predecessor's time and energy.

"It used to be that any group that came to Rome would have a papal audience. (Pope) Benedict has become much more selective, and I think that's a good thing," said one Vatican official.

As Pope Benedict fine-tuned the rhythm of his papacy, the curial offices and other Vatican institutions were moving ahead on agendas that, in many cases, predate the new pope.

To list just a sampling of the activity:

-- The Vatican's chief ecumenist, Cardinal Walter Kasper, traveled to Jerusalem, Turkey and Geneva in November for meetings to commemorate the Second Vatican Council's major documents on ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.

-- A flurry of beatification Masses were held at the Vatican and elsewhere, all for sainthood causes that were advanced under Pope John Paul. Unlike his predecessor, Pope Benedict has opted not to preside over these liturgies.

-- The Congregation for Catholic Education prepared to release a document on homosexuals and seminary admission, under preparation since 2001.

-- At the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, a commission held another in a series of meetings on reworking liturgical translations in English.

-- The Vatican's major pontifical academies sponsored a series of international conferences in November on a wide range of topics: the science and ethics of water distribution, globalization and education, and the concept of the human person.

-- This year even saw "dueling conferences," when a bioethics congress sponsored by the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life coincided with an international conference on the human genome, sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers.

"It's all too much," Swiss Cardinal Georges Cottier said of the glut of meetings, speeches and reports. Cardinal Cottier, the theologian of the papal household, addressed yet another Rome conference in mid-November, this one on infinity as viewed by science and theology.

Practically all the Vatican-sponsored events were scheduled or set in motion under Pope John Paul II, illustrating why "papal transition" is a matter of many months, not weeks.

If Vatican activity was frenetic, the pope's own schedule was merely busy. Elected at age 78, he has pared back the number of audiences and activities inherited from Pope John Paul.

For example, Pope Benedict has dropped private audiences with most of the apostolic nuncios in various countries. Instead, he chats with them for a minute or two at the end of his Wednesday general audience.

The pope meets with political leaders and religious representatives, but they are usually brief encounters. He generally leaves policy details to officials of the Secretariat of State.

His audience with Francis Rooney, the new U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, was typical: The pope gave a speech about one page long, underlining a few key principles. Two days later, Rooney had a more detailed follow-up meeting with Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican's foreign minister.

When he wants to, however, the pope will take a more personal interest in the details -- as demonstrated by his half-hour meetings in November with Israeli President Moshe Katsav and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

For months, the Roman rumor mill churned out reports of an impending shake-up in the Roman Curia. It was to be Pope Benedict's "tsunami," the wave of appointments that would clear the deck and put his own definitive stamp on Vatican affairs from that moment on.

The curial tsunami did not appear in September, or October, and as November drew to a close there was palpable disappointment among some Vatican watchers. It seemed to aggravate journalists that not much news was emerging about the pope's plans or projects.

In late October, Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican reporter for Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, wrote that Pope Benedict had introduced a new and "solitary" style to the papacy.

"He doesn't have friends in the Curia. He doesn't associate with fellow Germans, he doesn't invite anyone to lunch or breakfast, and he doesn't allow groups of Catholics to attend his morning Mass," Politi wrote. "He lives, thinks, plans and makes decisions in the tower of his aloofness."

Several Vatican officials disputed that characterization, pointing out that even if he's not networking and socializing at Pope John Paul's pace, Pope Benedict meets with people each day.

"It's not true that he dines alone, either," said one informed official.

One thing that does seem true is that even many Vatican officials are awaiting a more detailed definition of Pope Benedict's plans for the Roman Curia and for his papacy.

Most people inside the Vatican, for example, would have trouble predicting the long-range impact of two surprise meetings Pope Benedict held in late summer: with Lefebvrite Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the Society of St. Pius X, and with Father Hans Kung, whose permission to teach as a Catholic theologian was withdrawn years ago.

The only certain big thing on the horizon is the pope's first encyclical, a 46-page meditation titled "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love"), which takes its inspiration from the first letter of St. John. It will be published in early December.

News about the encyclical's content, first reported by Catholic News Service in October, was one of the few tidbits to filter out of the Apostolic Palace in recent weeks. That, too, marks a change.

"We used to joke around here that 'pontifical secret' meant everyone knows except the pope. But under this pope, no one knows anything. The information is just not leaking out," said one Vatican official.


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