The Pope's First Year: How He Simplified His Role

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Pope Benedict XVI visits Cologne Cathedral on a trip to his homeland, Germany.

Marking one year since the April 19 election of Pope Benedict XVI can make the two dominant figures from last spring — John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — already seem like ancient history. But it is a testament to both the Catholic churchís durability and continuity and the speed of the modern news cycle that the only man in white on our minds now is Pope Benedict, while images of the same Ratzinger in cardinal red appear almost odd and outdated. For Catholicism, this is a necessary thing. The church counts on the very earthly process of an election — aided by the grandeur of church rituals and the weight of its history — to pass on its highest powers from one man to the next with just a puff of white smoke.

The elevation of Ratzinger, who was probably the best-known cardinal ever to become Pope, has offered a particularly dramatic transformation. Our era of 24-hour information and instant analysis has no doubt helped. Stepping into the papacy, Benedict quickly erased the stereotypes surrounding him from the quarter-century he spent overseeing orthodoxy for John Paul. Even in the first weeks, it was clear that he was not a chilly and unbending bureaucrat, but a basically gentle man with excellent listening skills and a gift with words. He has welcomed his longtime theological nemesis Hans KŁng for a long chat at the Pope's Castel Gandolfo. Benedict's first encyclical was not a finger-wagging treatise on doctrine, but a paean to Christian love. The sometimes shy pontiff has even begun to enjoy all the adoration heaped upon him by the piazzas full of faithful. Still, Benedict has drawn the line on doctrine, pushing through a previously languishing document that bars homosexuals from entering the seminary, while encouraging Catholic politicians to condemn abortion-rights laws and gay marriage. One could say that the substance is the same, just the style is different. Those who know him best say the man hasnít changed; he has only changed jobs.

In fact, the papacy has allowed the once aspiring university star to transmit his ideas with an assured public presence matured over his years in the upper ranks of the Vatican hiearchy. And more than ever the piercing intellect of Professor Ratzinger will hold sway over the entire spectrum of Catholic Church life — its customs, policies, institutions and, naturally, the papacy itself. The changes now on the way were being worked out well before a Benedict papacy was in the cards. In the throes of John Paulís greatest popularity, Cardinal Ratzinger was looking for ways to rein in the papacy and its Curia, or papal court. In his 2000 book God and the World, Ratzinger declares that the Vaticanís essential purpose is "to ensure that the pope has sufficient freedom to carry out his ministry. Whether this could be simplified further is a question we may ask." With the confluence of Catholic institutions in Rome and the quantity of papal writings and discourses and other responsibilities, he wonders "whether it is not all far too much." Meditating on the contemporary Pope, Ratzinger concludes: "The sheer quantity of personal contacts imposed on him by his relationship with the universal Church; the decisions that have to be made; and the necessity, amidst all this, of not losing his own contemplative footing, being rooted in prayer — all this poses an enormous dilemma."

These very practical (and spiritual) concerns of Cardinal Ratzinger are already being addressed by Pope Benedict. He halted John Paulís practice of holding morning mass with visitors; there are fewer meetings with Church officials (apostolic nunzios visiting from around the world get a brief chat — on their feet — at the end of Wednesday general audiences); speeches are shorter; lunches tend to be restricted to his personal secretary and perhaps one or two visitors. How far he extends this management policy into the heart of the entire Vatican bureaucracy remains to be seen, though already two Curia offices have been downsized away. It is nonetheless clear that the Pope himself — who already plans fewer encyclicals and fewer trips than his predecessor — is doing things differently, on a smaller scale.

Yet for all the apparent downsizing, we should remember that this master thinker is too smart not to appreciate the singular power of his new office or the importance of John Paulís legacy. Benedict does not want to toss away the hard-won leap in relevance for the papacy achieved by his predecessor: for unifying and purifying the Church, for preaching to the world, and for inspiring the masses. In this day and age, a strictly cerebral Pope, or administrator Pope, would waste much of what can be accomplished from this unique public perch. At the same time, a merely made-for-media papacy would empty the office of its sacredness.

It is a challenge that the 20th-century philosopher of modern communication theory Marshall McLuhan would comprehend. The Canadian-born writer, who coined the phrase "the medium is the message," was also a devout Catholic. In one conversation recorded by his wife, McLuhan said: "Christ came to demonstrate God's love for man and to call all men to Him through himself as Mediator, as Medium. And in so doing he became the proclamation of his Church, the message of God to man. God's medium became God's message."

A subtle clue of Benedict's approach was written last week into the Good Friday script for the Way of the Cross ceremony, an evening event at the Coliseum reintroduced by John Paul and an annual source of powerful television images and photography. The new Pope would certainly not do away with the live coverage of the "Via Crucis," but would make one change: the actors who read the meditations along the stations would not be stars, and would not even have their faces shown on television. Benedict wanted nothing distracting the faithful from the story and meaning of the Passion. One Vatican official who knows Benedict well, and admired John Paul, said soon after his election that Benedict "wants to simplify the papacy. Too many acts have become a simple devotion of the person of the Pope." The new Popeís challenge is to cut through the static interference of the modern world to connect the faithful directly to the very gospel he is preaching: to be, in other words, both messenger and message.