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Column: Five-year pontificate has thus far been one of surprises

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

Recently, I read a biography of St. Catherine of Siena who lived in the 14th century. The reading of history can be comforting, as it places our own present-day struggles and difficulties in the perspective of previous challenges the church experienced. At the time of St. Catherine’s death, there was a schism in the church with an “anti-pope” claiming authority for the leadership of the church.

The church has weathered some difficult times in its 2,000- year history. It has even survived some popes, who, thanks to the guidance of the Holy Spirit never led the church into doctrinal error, but were less than exemplary in living the Christian life.

In contrast, when Pope Benedict XVI made his pastoral visit to the United States two years ago, a non-Catholic commentator on a secular news channel remarked that he was impressed with the leadership of the Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II and now by Pope Benedict XVI. He admired both popes for their intellectual brilliance, but even more for their moral integrity.

I have thought of these remarks often during recent weeks when some have used the scandal of clergy sexual abuse of youth in Europe to attack Pope Benedict XVI and to attempt to undermine his moral authority. The irony is that no one has done more than Pope Benedict XVI to confront with honesty and candor this very real problem. In truth, the church of our time has been blessed with a remarkable successor of St. Peter.

This week I would like to visit with you about the first five years of Benedict XVI’s papacy and how those years have been characterized by surprises. Those who had formed their opinion of Joseph Ratzinger through the lens of the media expected Benedict XVI to be a harsh and domineering pope. Yet, once the world was able to see Joseph Ratzinger, unfiltered by media pundits, they experienced Benedict XVI as a strong, loving, wise and gentle shepherd for the universal church.

Many were surprised by the subject of Holy Father’s first encyclical letter, “Deus Caritas Est.” Pope Benedict chose to set the tone for his papacy by providing the church with an insightful reflection on love — sorting out the similarities, differences and distinctions between the secular and Christian understanding of love.

Despite being one of the world’s most erudite theologians, as well as one of the clearest moral guides of our time, Pope Benedict begins his encyclical by reminding us that being a Christian is not about grasping lofty ideas, nor can it be reduced simply to making ethical choices. Christianity is about an encounter with Jesus Christ that transforms one’s life. This has been the overarching theme of the pope’s catechesis for the first five years of his papacy.

Pope Benedict surprised the world again with the 2007 publication of the book, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Begun before his election as pope but not completed until after he was chosen to be the successor of Peter, the book offers readers the opportunity to encounter the person of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels.

While acknowledging the importance of the historical-critical method of exegesis, the Holy Father also identifies its inherent weaknesses and limitations. He notes that the historical-critical method by itself provides us with a very sterile and limited portrait of Jesus. The pope pointed future Catholic biblical scholarship to continue to utilize the benefits of the historical-critical method, but not to stop there.

The Holy Father reminded us that the whole Bible can only be properly understood as a fruit of the community of faith that has been inspired by God. Pope Benedict declares simply that he trusts the Gospels and finds in them a depiction of Jesus that is “historically plausible and convincing.” In “Jesus of Nazareth,” Pope Benedict shares with us his own “personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’” (Ps 27:8). In so doing, he has invited us to encounter the living Jesus through a prayerful reading of the Gospels.

Pope Benedict surprised us again with his permission for the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass according to the Missal of Pope John XXIII to be more commonly celebrated as the extraordinary form of the Latin rite. The Holy Father helped strengthen the liturgical reform of Vatican II by emphasizing its continuity with the past.

The pope has invited the church to rediscover the beauty of the liturgical tradition that produced the Novus Ordo and in which it is deeply and essentially rooted. In exercising his responsibility as chief liturgist for the universal church, the Holy Father has pointed Catholics — no matter if celebrating the Novus Ordo or the extraordinary form — to do so with beauty and reverence, as well as with a renewed and deepened awareness of the sacred.

Finally, many have been surprised by the Holy Father’s ability to continue and make his own the pastoral innovations made by the late Pope John Paul II, such as World Youth Day and pastoral visits to various nations. Many thought, because of their distinctive personalities, it would be difficult for Pope Benedict to continue these large-scale events. The remarkable success of his pastoral visit to the United States two years ago erased any doubts of his ability to communicate and inspire the young and old with his message and presence.

With the rest of the church, I look forward to seeing what surprises God will give the church through Pope Benedict’s ministry in the coming years.

About the author

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Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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