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VATICAN LETTER Dec-13-2006 (930 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

Moving in fast forward: 2006 saw acceleration of Benedict's papacy

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The year 2006 saw an acceleration of Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate, highlighted by publication of the pope's first encyclical, four foreign trips and important appointments at the Vatican and around the world.

For what was supposed to be a pared-back papacy, it was a busy 12 months.

The world will remember the big events: the pope's November visit to Turkey and his prayer in the Blue Mosque, the earlier controversy over the pope's remarks on Islam at the University of Regensburg, his encyclical proclaiming the simple Christian message that "God is love," and his first consistory to induct 15 new cardinals.

But most of the pope's work did not make headlines and took place in quiet offices behind the Vatican's walls. On this day-to-day level, the pace quickened for the pontiff, who turned 79 April 16 -- three days before the first anniversary of his election.

During 2005, it seemed the pope was easing into office; in 2006, his daily schedule was starting to look like that of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Pope Benedict held more than 700 private audiences during 2006, including some 360 "ad limina" meetings with individual bishops from dioceses on three continents. He gave more than 300 speeches or talks, celebrated more than 50 public Masses or prayer services and addressed close to a million people in his weekly general audiences.

In October, he canonized four new saints, including St. Mother Theodore Guerin, the 19th-century foundress of a religious order and numerous schools in Indiana.

In February, he named 15 new cardinals, the first step toward placing his own mark on the College of Cardinals, which will one day elect his successor. The pope convened the cardinals for an advisory meeting to discuss Islam and possible wider use of the Tridentine Mass.

Early in his pontificate, Pope Benedict announced he did not plan to travel much. You wouldn't know it by his peregrinations in 2006:

-- In a May trip to Poland he paid tribute to Pope John Paul and, in a visit to the site of the Auschwitz death camp, condemned the brutality and cynicism of the Nazi regime.

-- In July, he joined hundreds of thousands of families from around the world in Valencia, Spain.

-- In September, he returned to his native Bavaria in southern Germany -- but the homecoming aspect was overshadowed by his comments on Islam in an academic lecture at his former university.

-- In late November, he traveled to Turkey for a four-day trip that built new bridges with Islam and with the Orthodox Christian communities.

The pope also traveled extensively in Italy, vacationing in the Alps and addressing a national church conference in Verona, where he weighed in on moral and legislative issues.

In what has become a hallmark of his pontificate, Pope Benedict continued to speak off-the-cuff and sometimes delivered entire speeches extemporaneously. One of the more moving moments came during a springtime encounter with 40,000 young people in St. Peter's Square.

The pope sat on a chair and patiently answered the youths' questions, telling them he decided to become a priest after witnessing Nazi brutality -- but that he wondered whether he was cut out for a life of celibacy. It was another example of how the pope has used a quiet, thoughtful style to connect with his audiences.

Pope Benedict displayed a similar openness when he was interviewed at length by German-language TV and radio reporters, responding to questions about the Middle East, the burdens of office and the church's views about AIDS.

Earlier in the year, the pope commissioned an exhaustive Vatican study on medical and moral aspects of condom use and AIDS, in view of a possible document on the topic.

In September, Zambian Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo was excommunicated after he illicitly ordained four married men as bishops, in a push for acceptance of married priests in the Latin-rite church. The pope responded by convening a meeting of Vatican department heads, which issued a strong reaffirmation of the value of priestly celibacy.

The pope made only a few significant Roman Curia appointments -- in contrast to the persistently blogged rumors of a wave of imminent personnel changes.

He named Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, his longtime No. 2 at the doctrinal congregation, as secretary of state. The move was somewhat surprising because Cardinal Bertone had no diplomatic experience, but the cardinal made clear he was not out to change the Vatican line on key foreign policy questions.

The pope brought in Third World cardinals to head two other Vatican departments: Indian Cardinal Ivan Dias took charge of evangelization, and Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes now heads the clergy congregation.

Throughout the year, the pope continued to remember his predecessor and quoted frequently from his teachings. Marking the first anniversary of Pope John Paul's death, the pope celebrated Mass and prayed the rosary with some 80,000 people who packed St. Peter's Square for a candlelight vigil.

He told the crowd that Pope John Paul's last hours were "a pilgrimage of faith, love and hope, which left a profound mark on the history of the church and humanity."

A few days later, he led a pilgrimage of young people to pray at the late pope's tomb beneath St. Peter's Basilica.


Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
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