Profile of new Pope Benedict XVI and programme of his pontificate
Cardinal Stanislaw Nagy, SCJ
Being deeply moved I attempt to comment on the message of Benedict XVI, which he delivered on Wednesday, 20 April 2005, to Cardinals Electors during his first Mass after he had been chosen as Peter's successor. The whole Poland, or at least the whole Church in Poland, which looks with affection at the late monumental figure of Pope John Paul II, must get to know and reflect on Benedict's words.
I omit the fact that in days of yore, just after his election John Paul II gave a brief outline of the main tasks of his mission. So did his humble successor Pope Benedict XVI. But how much were we touched by yesterday's speech of Cardinal Ratzinger, today's successor of 'the Great Pope'! He did not only draw a clear and precise outline of his pontificate but also gave a moving testimony of his spiritual relationship with the Pope whose funeral he conducted several days ago.
The outline of this marvellous speech itself opens the hearts of the people on the River Vistula and the River Oder. At the same time this picture should be elaborated in details in order to grasp its profound meaning.
'Humble worker of the Lord's vineyard'
'Successor of Peter, fisherman of Galilee'
I am astonished that this man, who was the highest span during the whole epoch of John Paul II's pontificate, facing the office of Successor of the Apostle Peter, changed into a humble servant of the Church, who took to his heart 'the disproportion he was entrusted with', and did not hide his anxiety about 'the responsibility he assumed'. Indeed, his role of the guardian of the doctrine of the faith was connected with fulfilling key tasks in the life of the Church. But now when he faced the whole burden of responsibility for the global rhythm of this life he felt 'human apprehension', fear if he would manage it.
But the new Pope is a too good theologian not to know that it is God that leads the Church and he never leaves her, that he chose the right shepherd of his flock and it is Christ that is the main Shepherd.
And in spite of these concerns, with deep gratitude he accepts Peter's succession, which he regards as a gift of Divine Mercy. And the continuation of this fragment is more than important, 'And I consider it a special grace which my Venerable Predecessor, John Paul II, has obtained for me. I seem to feel his strong hand clasping mine; I seem to see his smiling eyes and hear his words, at this moment addressed specifically to me, "Do not be afraid!" Could he express his attitude towards the late Pope and his legacy more forcibly? We need to return to this important motif but before that I will try to complete the profile of Benedict XVI, which was outlined in his message.
After the unexpected divine decree the new Pope refers to past events, 'Divine Providence has called me to succeed this great Pope. I am thinking back at this moment to what happened in the neighbourhood of Caesarea Philippi some 2,000 years ago. I seem to hear Peter's words: "You are the Christ..., the Son of the living God", and the Lord's solemn affirmation: "You are "Peter' and on this rock I will build my Church.... I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (cf. Mt 16: 15-19). I seem to be reliving the same Gospel scene; I, the Successor of Peter, repeat with trepidation the anxious words of the fisherman of Galilee and listen once again with deep emotion to the reassuring promise of the divine Master. Although the weight of responsibility laid on my own poor shoulders is enormous, there is no doubt that the divine power on which I can count is boundless: "You are "Peter', and on this rock I will build my Church" (Mt 16: 18). In choosing me as Bishop of Rome, the Lord wanted me to be his Vicar, he wanted me to be the "rock" on which we can all safely stand. I ask him to compensate for my limitations so that I may be a courageous and faithful Pastor of his flock, ever docile to the promptings of his Spirit'. And there follows a complete dedication to Christ, 'I first of all renew my total and confident loyalty to Christ'.
If we try to summarise these features of Benedict XVI's personality we can see a man who combines his feelings of limitations and humility with full awareness of the huge responsibility he assumes, e.g. the legacy of St Peter, which includes being the Head and Shepherd of the universal Church.
Here we should come back to the above quoted words, which touched us deeply. These words refer to the feeling of the new Pope that John Paul's strong hand was clasping his and that he can see his smiling eyes and hear his words, at this moment addressed specifically to him, "Do not be afraid!" As a matter of fact, these words tell us all about Pope Benedict's attitude to his predecessor John Paul II. It is true he also remembers his other predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI but John Paul II has not only been put at the first place but also at the clearly unique place because of the closeness of life with him and the fact he accompanied his pontificate directly. Moreover, John Paul was closer to him because of his heroic death and moving funeral he conducted as the main celebrant. Benedict XVI himself sketched briefly and emotionally the best picture of this sacred connection between the person of John Paul II and his successor, 'I have before my eyes in particular the testimony of Pope John Paul II. He leaves a Church that is more courageous, freer, more youthful. She is a Church which, in accordance with his teaching and example, looks serenely at the past and is not afraid of the future.' What a wonderful vision of the Predecessor and the Church he led for over half a century! In this global vision of John Paul II we can see impressive details, including the Great Jubilee that the Church 'entered the new millennium, bearing the Gospel, applied to today's world through the authoritative rereading of the Second Vatican Council'. In the opinion of the new Pope the Council is 'a "compass" by which to take our bearings in the vast ocean of the third millennium'. The Pope concludes with the words of John Paul's spiritual Testament, 'I am convinced that it will long be granted to the new generations to draw from the treasures that this 20th-century Council has lavished upon us' (cf. Apostolic Letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte, nn. 57-58).
The programme of the pontificate
You can add many things to complete the picture Benedict XVI drew in his address. But you cannot omit the programme, which the new Pope sketched in his first official message. The programme is also significant in the light of his attitude to his great Predecessor.
The starting point is his attitude towards the legacy of the Council, 'I also wish to confirm my determination to continue to put the Second Vatican Council into practice'. The counciliar documents have lost none of their timeliness.
The Eucharist is the second key element of the programme of the new Pope. The pontificate which began in the Year dedicated to the Eucharist cannot fail to see this providential coincidence as an element that must mark the ministry to which he was called. 'The Eucharist, the heart of Christian life and the source of the Church's evangelizing mission, cannot but constitute the permanent centre and source of the Petrine ministry that has been entrusted to me'.
'This year, therefore, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi must be celebrated with special solemnity. Subsequently, the Eucharist will be the centre of the World Youth Day in Cologne in August, and in October, also of the Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, whose theme will be: "The Eucharist, source and summit of the life and mission of the Church".
His appeal to beloved brothers in priesthood is moving. He refers to the Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday by John Paul II, which 'so frequently emphasized that "All the more then must the life of a priest be 'shaped' by the Eucharist". The new Pope calls to zealous faith in Christ's presence in the Eucharist and to 'the devout, daily celebration of Holy Mass, the centre of the life and mission of every priest'.
The new Pope connected the very important issue of Christian unity with the Eucharist. 'With full awareness, therefore, at the beginning of his ministry in the Church of Rome which Peter bathed in his blood, Peter's current Successor takes on as his primary task the duty to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers'. 'He is aware that good intentions do not suffice for this. Concrete gestures that enter hearts and stir consciences are essential, inspiring in everyone that inner conversion that is the prerequisite for all ecumenical progress'. Finally, he expresses his desire to follow the example of his Predecessors John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II, and he is fully determined to encourage every initiative that seems appropriate for promoting unity.
He addresses the followers of other religions or those who are simply seeking an answer to the fundamental questions of life and have not yet found it. He addresses all with simplicity and affection 'to assure them that the Church wants to continue to weave an open and sincere dialogue with them, in the search for the true good of the human being and of society'.
The last element of his programme is the young which was so dear to John Paul II. Benedict XVI offers his affectionate embrace to them, hoping, please God, to meet them in Cologne on the occasion of the upcoming World Youth Day in August. He promises to continue the dialogue with 'dear young people, the future and hope of the Church and of humanity, listening to their expectations'.
At the end of his first message Benedict XVI refers to John Paul II, namely to Apostolic Letter for the Year of the Eucharist entitled 'Stay with us, Lord!' At the very end Benedict renews to Christ his unconditional promise of fidelity, 'I intend to serve him alone, dedicating myself totally to the service of his Church'.
We have a desire to say, 'What else can we expect of the new Pope?' He replies to this question himself, following again the example of his great Predecessor, 'I call on the motherly intercession of Mary Most Holy, in whose hands I place the present and future of the Church and of myself'.