The First Three Months of Benedict XVI: New Pope, New Style

by Sandro Magister

ROMA, July 15, 2005

During his first three months as pope, Benedict XVI has not succeeded in winning over the major Italian and international press, which to a great extent remains hostile to him.

Among Catholic intellectuals, too, the cease-fire that the prince of the dissenters, Hans Küng, conceded to him after the election seems to have expired.

From the beaches of California, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese , who is said to have been dismissed as director of "America" at the behest of Joseph Ratzinger when he was still a cardinal , has blasted the new pope as an irreconcilable enemy of modernity, inspired by the gloomiest form of Augustinianism imaginable. By way of demonstration, Reese recommended an essay in "Commonweal" by Joseph A. Komonchak, who is a priest of the archdiocese of New York, a professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and one of the leading collaborators with the five-volume "History of Vatican Council II" directed by Giuseppe Alberigo. The most widely read history of the council in the world, this series was recently the object of criticism from Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar.

And in Italy, professor Achille Ardigò, a guru of the Bologna "school" founded by Fr. Giuseppe Dossetti and headed by Alberigo, said during an interview with the newspaper "la Repubblica": " I pray every day to the Holy Spirit, that he may guide the pope and Cardinal Ruini to turn aside from their rationalist theology," a theology which , as the historian Pietro Scoppola has also said in an interview with "Avvenire" , clings to natural law, throws out everything in politics, and "excludes the role of transcendence in human activity."

In another interview with "la Repubblica," Alberigo recalled that in 1953, at his home in Bologna, a "pious and rather famous" Benedictine monk who was staying with him as his guest invited him and his wife to pray for the death of Pius XII , which took place in 1958 , with the explanation: "Now the Holy Father is a burden for the Church; let's pray that the Lord will take him soon."

But for his part, Benedict XVI is captivating the crowds.

The same masses of the faithful that applauded the gestures or striking phrases of pope Karol Wojtyla, while almost completely missing what it was that he was talking about, are doing the opposite with the new pope. They follow Ratzinger's homilies word for word, from beginning to end, with an attentiveness that astonishes the experts. Verifying this takes nothing more than mingling among the crowds in attendance at a Mass celebrated by the pope.

The new pope's style is sober in terms of his contact with the masses. His symbolic expressiveness comes entirely from the liturgy, which he celebrates with a great sense of authority. But apart from the Masses, catecheses, and blessings, Benedict XVI is a minimalist. "The pope must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God's Word," he said when taking possession of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome, in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, on May 7. And he keeps to this standard even in regard to public gestures. He does very little of his own. He wants the faithful to pay attention to what is essential, which is not his own person but Jesus Christ alive and present in the sacraments of the Church.

He even spends his vacations in his own way. He doesn't go for the mountain peaks and the ski lodges like his athletic predecessor. On July 12, when he went to the mountains in Les Combes, in Valle d'Aosta, he brought a piano and three suitcases full of books. He writes out by hand the things that are close to his heart: his homilies, the upcoming encyclical, and a few crucial speeches, like the one he gave on June 6 to a convention on the family which unleashed reactions around the world: in Italy, it was applied to the imminent referendum on assisted procreation; in Spain, to law on gay marriage; and in the United States, to the disputes over homosexuality.

Benedict XVI loves to write by hand, in German, in a miniscule script that is perfectly legible to his trusted secretaries, Ingrid Stampa and Birgit Wansing, both of whom are German and belong to the spiritual movement of Schönstatt, which was started in 1914 in a small Marian sanctuary in the Rhine valley and today is found in eighty countries throughout the world.

Ingrid Stampa has been his personal assistant since 1991, when Ratzinger was living in his apartment of three hundred square meters in Piazza della Città Leonina, in the neighborhood just a few steps away from the Vatican. Now she shuttles back and forth between that apartment and the Apostolic Palace, where , while the pope is away for the entire summer, first in Valle d'Aosta and then at Castel Gandolfo , the real work of arranging the pontifical quarters has begun. Benedict XVI possesses an extensive and carefully ordered library, which covers all of the walls of his old apartment. And that is where he intends to leave much of it.

Birgit Wansing has also remained behind after the pope's transfer to his new residence; as before, she continues to work at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where Ratzinger was prefect for 23 years. Ingrid Stampa, for her part, has been integrated into the German section of the secretariat of state.

But Benedict XVI has brought with him, to his residence at the Apostolic Palace, Carmela and Loredana, members of Memores Domini, the branch of religious women of the group Communion and Liberation. They have taken religious vows, but do not wear a religious habit. They take care of the kitchen, the cleaning, the wardrobe. The latter of the two has worked in the past with Cardinal Angelo Scola, when he was rector of the Pontifical Lateran University. Another two sisters of the same order, Emanuela and Cristina, will soon complete the team.

Then there is the pope's personal secretary, who like him is Bavarian, Georg Gaenswein, 48, a priest of the diocese of Freiburg in Bresigau. Until this year, he taught at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, the Rome university of Opus Dei. He has been Ratzinger's secretary for two years.

There is a significant difference between him and John Paul II's famous right-hand man, Stanislaw Dziwisz, now archbishop of Krakow. Dziwisz exercised an important influence over the thousand decisions of ordinary Church governance that pope Karol Wojtyla overlooked. And the looming presence of his secretary was never lacking from any of the pope's working lunches or dinners.

It's no longer that way with Benedict XVI . Gaenswein appears less frequently and exercises less influence. The new pope doesn't invite anyone to lunch or dinner, just as in the past he was not accustomed to so doing. He speaks informally with his guests and forms his decisions personally. The first surprise was the nomination of his successor as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: William J. Levada, an American, was totally unexpected. The future nominations to the curia, beginning with the successor to secretary of state Angelo Sodano, will probably bring more surprises.

There has also been a change in the wind at the Vatican press office. Joaquín Navarro-Valls has been confirmed as director, but he does not have with Benedict XVI the direct and osmotic relationship that he had with John Paul II. He can no longer permit himself to model and amplify the pope's gestures, statements, and performance. He knows that the newly elected pope wants to control and make very modest use of his own image and public exposure.

Navarro still has his relationship with the secretariat of state, which he depends upon by statute. But in the course of three months he has already had two mishaps. The first was connected with the apparent denial of a preliminary Vatican investigation into accusations of sexual abuse made against the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel. The second involved the adjective "anti-Christian," which was initially applied to the terrorist attack in London on July 7 and later removed. Neither case was a shining example of clarity in communication from the Vatican press office or the secretariat of state.

Navarro was the Jack-of-all-trades when it came to the books published by Karol Wojtyla while he was pope. Not with Benedict XVI. Ratzinger himself took care of all the preparations for the publication of his first book as pope, "L'Europa di Benedetto nella crisi delle culture [Benedict's Europe in the Crisis of Cultures]." He personally selected the publisher, David Cantagalli, of Siena. In the case of another book that he released through the same publisher, "Fede, verità, tolleranza [Faith, Truth, and Tolerance], he had one hundred numbered copies printed on high-quality paper and personally handed them out as gifts one by one.

Ratzinger was less fortunate with the San Paolo publishing house, which he gave the rights to publish, in Italy, the new "Compendium" of the catechism of the Catholic Church. The result was a volume of mediocre appearance, in terms of both the text and the images. And yet the images themselves, fourteen masterpieces of Eastern and Western sacred art, were chosen personally by Ratzinger, who wanted them to make up an integral part of the catechism.

The extent of his appreciation for great Christian art, Gregorian chant, and sacred polyphonic music is another element that distinguishes the new pope from his predecessor. Archbishop Piero Marini, the director of the modernized ceremonies for television so dear to John Paul II, is waiting to be assigned other duties.

Benedict XVI has already reined in the extraordinary number of saints and blesseds proclaimed by pope Wojtyla. Ratzinger does not proclaim the new blesseds himself, leaving this instead to the appropriate local churches, and he has put the brakes on the proclamation of new saints.

Another cutback regards trips abroad. His will be few and tightly focused. He gave the example with his first trip, to Bari on May 29, he made a round trip in one morning, staying only to celebrate Mass. He will stay a bit longer in Cologne in mid-August. He has planned a visit to the Jewish synagogue, the second such visit by a pope after the historic 1986 visit of John Paul II to the synagogue of Rome. Concern for the relationship between the Church and Judaism is another characteristic feature of the new pope, this in full continuity with his predecessor.

Benedict XVI seems no less decisive in his desire to make peace with the Eastern Orthodox Churches. He shares with them a focus on the centrality of the Eucharistic liturgy and respect for tradition. But there are serious obstacles.

Benedict XVI would gladly go to Istanbul on November 30, the feast of Saint Andrew, to meet with the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, who has invited him. But he also needs an invitation from Turkey, which is aware of the new pope's opposition to its entry into the European Union.

As for Moscow, which was at daggers drawn with the previous pope, Benedict XVI sent Cardinal Walter Kasper there to check out the situation ahead of time. However, he was not able even to meet with Patriarch Alexei II. The most critical point here is Ukraine. With more than five million faithful, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church wants to transfer its headquarters from Lviv to the capital, Kiev, before the end of the year. The plan is to consecrate a new metropolitan cathedral there in October, which would have jurisdiction over almost the entire country. The Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow , most of whose reserves of faithful, vocations, and money are in Ukraine , sees this as an intolerable affront and is demanding that Benedict XVI block the move.