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Benedict Keeps Focus on Church

Unlike his globetrotting predecessor, this pope is quietly working to reshape the papacy.

April 16, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

VATICAN CITY — No one would ever accuse Pope Benedict XVI of being overly charismatic.

Benedict clearly prefers quiet study or the professorial delivery of a homily to the flashy performances before adoring crowds that his predecessor favored.

In his first year on St. Peter's throne, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has confounded critics and supporters alike while beginning to reshape the papacy. In the process, he has emerged slowly but steadily from the shadows of the late John Paul II, who reigned longer than almost any other pope.

Benedict is fashioning a streamlined pontificate, a leadership that shuns -- or at least dims -- the spotlight on himself and focuses instead on strengthening the Catholic Church.

Where the gregarious John Paul thrived before massive audiences in visits to many parts of the globe, the more intellectual Benedict has chosen to narrow his exposure. He has reduced the number of his meetings and lunches with visitors and removed himself from ceremonies beatifying potential saints. He is planning to limit travel and do more of his own writing, delegating fewer documents and decisions to his staff.

For many Catholics, the shift is welcome. John Paul was so consumed with a globetrotting evangelism that he often neglected some of the more mundane but critical business of the Vatican.

Benedict, many Vatican-watchers say, will be a better hands-on administrator. At the same time, he is reserved and prudent. He has not launched the kind of major overhaul of the Curia, hunting the heads of opponents in the Vatican administration, that some predicted. Instead, he has begun a careful recapture of traditional aspects of the papacy while fighting for a revival of Catholic identity in the increasingly secular West.

"The church needed a rest. The problem of overexposure of [John Paul] was a problem for the church, and Benedict has decided to stay behind the curtain," said Alberto Melloni, Italian historian and author of a forthcoming book on Benedict's first year. "Now we have a sort of 'decanter' pontificate. He will not shock the church with an awful lot of documents and reforms and appointments but will wait and let things settle and go ahead slowly."

In a quarter-century as the Vatican's chief doctrinal enforcer, the German-born prelate earned a reputation as a strict, conservative theologian. Many Catholics expected Benedict would crack down hard on dissent after he became pope. Instead, his papacy has been more nuanced, but there have been displays of his rigid orthodoxy.

Days after Benedict's installation, for example, Father Thomas Reese, the highly regarded editor of the Jesuit magazine America, was forced to resign. Under Reese, the magazine had discussed controversial topics such as gays in the priesthood. His dismissal was widely seen as an attempt by Rome to quiet debate.

Benedict has given priority to bringing back to the Catholic fold the archconservative group known as the Society of St. Pius X, in part because he agrees with them. The religious society, led by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, split with the Vatican over church reforms in the mid-1960s, notably the decision to break with tradition and permit Mass to be said in languages other than Latin.

And the first major document issued under Benedict's watch was a stern reiteration of the church's ban on gay seminarians. Men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" should not become priests, the pope declared.

Yet other developments reflected a more magnanimous side.

His first encyclical, the most important form of writing that a pope produces, focused on human love -- without judgmental mentions of contraception and reproduction. And one of Benedict's first meetings was with a liberal theologian he had censured years earlier, Hans Kung. The encounter was described as warm and friendly.

He has also shown tentative signs of what church officials call collegiality, a willingness to consult with bishops from dioceses near and far over the issues that concern them. Numerous prelates, especially in the United States, have been clamoring for years for just such a dialogue.

It is possible that a pope who is less of a star will have a better chance at repairing the schism between Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox faith, another cherished goal expressed by Benedict. John Paul could never win an invitation to Moscow because leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church suspected he promoted efforts to convert Russians.

Another shift in this papacy is Benedict's focus on Europe and his much harder line on Islam. Both reflect the prime importance he attaches to strengthening Catholic faith and values in all aspects of life, especially in the West.

"The truth is that Ratzinger has always been a Eurocentric thinker," Catholic writer Vittorio Messori said in an assessment of the pope's first year published in the Corriere della Sera magazine.

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