With donations to the Church from around the world almost doubling and pilgrims pouring into Rome in ever-greater numbers, Vatican watchers are beginning to reassess the two-year-old pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI and noting a positive “Ratzinger effect”.
The move, which amends the Second Vatican Council’s decision in the 1960s that worship should be in the vernacular, is regarded as yet another sign of Benedict’s conservative attachment to tradition and doctrine.
Some senior Catholics in Britain have accused him of “encouraging those who want to turn the clock back” and say that they fear the rite will revive preVatican II prayers for the conversion of “the perfidious Jews”.
The Vatican denies this, however, and points instead to the huge appeal of the Latin Mass — and Gregorian chant — not only for disaffected right-wing Catholics but also for many ordinary believers who value “the sheer beauty” of the ancient liturgy.
“This is a Pope who — contrary to conventional wisdom — is in tune with the faithful,” one Vatican source said.
The unassuming and scholarly Benedict does not have the star appeal of John Paul II. At 80, he does not travel as much as the “Pilgrim Pope” or write as many documents.
Andrea Tornielli, the biographer of several popes including Benedict, said that when crowds packed into St Peter’s Square to hear Benedict in the early days of his pontificate, “many people attributed this to the John Paul effect”, or the global media coverage of the late Pope’s courage in the face of illness and death.
It was increasingly clear that although Benedict — formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, John Paul’s long-serving doctrinal adviser — lacked the showmanship and charisma of his predecessor, his “simple and direct” assertion of values struck a chord with believers, Mr Tornielli said.
The distinction between “the good and progressive John Paul and the bad conservative Benedict” was a false one, Mr Tornielli told The Times. “Ratzinger was John Paul’s closest adviser for over two decades, and many of his initiatives as Pope — including the Tridentine Mass — are developments of John Paul’s own ideas.”
While less theatrical than his predecessor, Benedict makes no secret of enjoying the “dressing up” side of the job, reviving ermine-trimmed robes, elaborate headgear and dainty satin shoes. He has grown more adept and relaxed at greeting people.
Cardinal Sergio Sebastiani, head of economic affairs at the Holy See, said that the “remarkable increase” in both donations and numbers of pilgrims showed that there was “a symbiosis, a mutual sympathy between this Pope and Christian people everywhere”.
Presenting the Holy See’s annual budget yesterday, Cardinal Sebastiani noted that not only had it closed last year with a surplus of €2.4 million, partly thanks to diocesan donations, there had also been a “huge jump” in “Peter’s Pence”, the annual church collections given directly to the Pope to use for charity, from $60 million (£30 million) in 2005 to $102 million.
“The days when people talked of papal bankruptcy are past,” said Marco Tosatti, Vatican correspondent of La Stampa.
John Paul, who is on the road to sainthood, continues to be an attraction: with up to 35,000 pilgrims filing past his tomb in the crypt of St Peter’s every day, the Vatican is considering moving the tomb into the Basilica.
Record numbers attend Benedict’s weekly audiences, and seven million people a year now visit St Peter’s, a rise of 20 per cent. Similar increases are recorded for pilgrimages to Catholic shrines at Assisi, Lourdes, Fatima in Portugal and Madonna di Guadalupe in Mexico.
“This is a Ratzinger phenomenon,” reported La Repubblica.
For some he remains “God’s Rottweiler” or the “Panzerkardinal”.
He has disappointed liberals who hoped that he would relax rules on priestly celibacy or the use of condoms to help to fight Aids in Africa.
The Vatican has issued a document reasserting that only the Catholic Church is “the Church of Christ”, a move that has offended Anglican and Orthodox Christians.
Benedict’s statements on issues from the Latin Mass to dialogue with China were promised “imminently”, then delayed, and Curia department heads long past retirement age have not been replaced.
“Running the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is not the same as running the world-wide Church,” one insider said. “Benedict tends to appoint men he knows and trusts — regardless of whether they are right for the job.”
Above all, he does not delegate as the ailing John Paul II did, and such is his reputation as a theologian that no one dares to offer him advice.
This has led to a series of avoidable public relations disasters, most notably his speech on “faith and reason” at Regensburg University last year, when he inflamed Muslim opinion by appearing to suggest that Islam was inherently violent.
In Brazil in May he angered indigenous populations by asserting that the arrival of Christianity in the New World did not amount to “the imposition of a foreign culture” on native peoples, and his off-the-cuff assertion that Catholic legislators who voted for easier abortion in Mexico should be excommunicated had to be hastily “clarified” by Father Federico Lombardi, his spokesman.
More recently the Vatican was dismayed when a reference to a “frank exchange of views” on “delicate questions” after Tony Blair’s farewell meeting with the Pope was taken to mean the two men had had a row.
Such lapses, says John Allen, another of his biographers, make him appear “tone deaf”.
“For those who know Benedict’s mind, it can be painful to watch his carefully reasoned reflections become capsized in the court of public opinion by a stray phrase that’s obviously open to misinterpretation.”
- On his election, Benedict XVI replaced the crown on the papal arms with a mitre, indicating a rejection of political power
- He has maintained the Church’s position on artificial birth control, abortion and homosexuality, areas that reformers had hoped would change
- Deus Est Caritas, Benedict’s first encyclical, argued that the concept of “Eros”, or sexual love, now signified simply sex. Its warmth and insight surprised commentators
- In March, the Pope affirmed the Catholic doctrine that Hell “exists and is eternal for those who shut their hearts to [God’s] love”. The move caused controversy amongst liberal theologians
For Christmas 2006, the Pope, who has described rock music as Satan’s work, abandoned the annual Vatican pop concert established by John Paul II.
The move was seen as a refreshingly honest refusal to compromise spiritual values for popularity.
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