Pope Benedict XVI

Editorial, April 2009

Last October I spent three weeks in Rome covering the synod on the Bible. During that time I was able to see Pope Benedict XVI at several events—Sunday Masses and Wednesday audiences in St. Peter’s Square. In April he will be 83 and will complete four years as our Supreme Shepherd and Vicar of Christ on earth. In such a short time he has already had a tremendous impact on the Church. In Rome he is very popular and attracts huge crowds to his weekly audiences. Germans, of course, are very much in evidence and seem to outnumber Italians at the audiences by two or three to one. When he was elected pope and in his first audiences, he seemed a bit diffident and surprised that thousands of people would come to see him and cheer him. He soon got over that and now obviously enjoys blessing the huge crowds as he drives around St. Peter’s Square in the famous white “popemobile.”

Coming from Bavaria and being a professor, scholar and first-rate theologian, at first sight he would seem to be out of place as the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Shortly after he was elected he went to visit his staff at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and told them he did not want to be the center of attention. But one of his friends told him, “Your Holiness, that cannot be since you are now the Vicar of Christ.”

Joseph Ratzinger is by nature rather shy. He is soft-spoken and kind to all. The best word I know of to characterize him is to say that he is a gentleman. In the 1970s I attended two or three meetings in Germany at which he was present as Professor Ratzinger. At the time I was impressed by his kind and gentle manner in dealing with others and in speaking about them.

Benedict is an outstanding theologian. At the recent synod he spoke one day for about eight minutes on a topic concerning the Bible—the relationship between exegetes (that is, Scripture scholars who interpret and comment on the Bible) and theologians. He cut right to the heart of the matter by saying that there are two dimensions to the written word of God: 1) the historical, which has to do with past events, and 2) the divine, which has to do with the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. For too long, he said, exegetes have concentrated almost exclusively on the historical and human in the Bible and have neglected the divine, which has to do with theology. He said that the two areas of study must learn to work together and learn from each other.

One of the Pope’s main concerns is the liturgy of the Church. He has made significant changes in papal Masses, linking the liturgy to the tradition of the Church. While I was in Rome the first volume of his Complete Works in sixteen volumes was made public. It contains his most important writings on the liturgy; it was his explicit wish that the first volume to be printed should be the one on the liturgy. The whole series will take eight years to produce—two volumes in German per year. Arrangements are being made to make the work available in other languages, including English. Also, his motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, which brought back the traditional Latin Mass as a regular part of Catholic worship, proves his concern about the tradition of the Church. He has been saying for many years that there is no discontinuity between Vatican II and the previous history of the Church, that is, that Vatican II was not meant to be a whole new beginning for the Church and a rejection of the past.

Benedict XVI has reduced the papal schedule to a slower pace than that of his predecessor, John Paul II. He does not have guests at all his meals; he does not invite many concelebrants to his morning Mass; he does not travel as much as John Paul did. He has changed the papal schedule in order to find time each day to study and write; since he loves classical music, he reserves a few minutes each day to play the piano. He is now working on the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth—his outstanding life of Jesus Christ. They say in Rome that he is also working on a new encyclical. All of this takes time.

It is a difficult task for any man to be the Vicar of Christ. For his age, he seems very vigorous and does not walk like an old man. He is obviously a holy man—a priest who not only knows the Catholic faith thoroughly but also lives it. He needs the prayers of the faithful, since he is our father in Christ. Please say a prayer for him after you have read this short essay.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.