It was lunch time in San Juan on Tuesday when reports from Rome announced white smoke and the tolling of Vatican church bells.
In what seemed an eternity for the thousands of spectators clustered in St. Peters square (actually it was nearly an hour), the traditional balcony used by popes to address throngs of worshipers remained empty, fueling speculation as to the new popes identity. Finally the Chilean Cardinal, Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez, emerged to pronounce to Rome and to the world the traditional Latin phrase used on such occasions, "Habemos Papam"-- "We Have a Pope."
Shortly thereafter, a familiar face to Romans and many Catholics emerged to greet the crowd and pronounce himself Pope Benedict XVI, the 265th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. The appearance of the sliver-haired former Cardinal, and long-time Secretary of the Curial office monitoring doctrinal orthodoxy within the church, caused joy for some and disappointment for others.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the German-born theologian and trusted advisor to the late John Paul II, had been elevated to the throne of St. Peter the Apostle by 115 of his brother Cardinals, a statement to Catholics worldwide that the papacy of the recently deceased pope would likely continue uninterrupted.
Although his election was no surprise, many had hoped that the successor to John Paul II would be one from the group of third world cardinals or an Italian. In the Heralds Hot Button Issue poll of last week, 70% of respondents expressed a preference for a pope from one of these categories. A scant 7% had hopes for the elevation of a Cardinal from the Vatican bureaucracy, the Curia. The new Pope, Benedict XVI, is the consummate Vatican insider and, as such, had become a controversial figure, finding himself and often placing himself -- in the thick of some of the Churchs most vexing issues of the past quarter-century.
In his first message on Wednesday, the new pope promised to "work for the unification of all Christians, to widen contacts with other religions and to continue implementing the reforms of the Second Vatican Council." Since then, he has been seen walking among crowds of well-wishers near his old apartment, kissing babies and easily talking among them. Additionally, many of the Cardinals that elected him are giving interviews, emphasizing his "softer side," and expressing their great confidence that he will listen to all voices inside and outside the church and show them respect and consideration.
This new image is in contrast to the memory of Catholics who have seen in this Bavarian churchman the symbol of resistance to many reforms promised by the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s. That Council promised more "collegiality" in church governance, but Catholics have seen a greater consolidation of ecclesiastical power in Rome than at any time in the Twentieth Century. Those who had hoped that the Councils pronouncements offering greater church authority to the laity and to women would come to pass during the papacy of Pope John Paul II have, instead, witnessed the opposite. Vatican insiders claim that when innovative theological ideas found their way to Rome, it was Cardinal Ratzinger that crushed them and silenced their authors.
But sound bites coming from Cardinals in Rome, awaiting Benedict XVIs formal installation on Sunday, caution us that, with his new title and broader responsibilities, Joseph Ratzinger could "change." We are admonished to consider that, with broader responsibilities, fresh insights into old problems could occur to a man of Ratzingers brilliance and piety. Perhaps we should believe it, as we reflect on how this man, as a young theologian, was one of the most progressive voices at the Second Vatican Council and then later, with different responsibilities, become an agent for orthodoxy and the concentration of hierarchical authority.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Washingtons Archbishop, tells a reporter that American Catholics should "give him a chance."
Perhaps the most disappointing memory of Cardinal Ratzinger for Catholics in those places where pedophilia by the clergy occurred -- and where bishops concealed this pattern of abuse -- was his characterization of the problem as a "conspiracy by the press." On his cue, many bishops and priests earlier gave the scandal this spin, to their later regret as victims gave witness to the crimes done against them and public prosecutors exacted legal penalties on perpetrators and, in some cases, bishops and their dioceses.
In the United States, immediate reaction to the new pope could be measured in liberal v. conservative responses. Catholic liberal groups bemoaned what they saw as a lost opportunity to soften the church of John Paul IIs doctrinaire stand against birth control, homosexuality and a married priesthood. On the other hand, conservative Catholics welcomed the expected continued emphasis on absolute moral values and liturgical orthodoxy.
Perhaps both groups will be disappointed and the new pope will strike out in unimagined directions. Perhaps previously isolated Catholics will see opportunities to find communion with Benedict XVIs initiatives. Perhaps his new dependence on the good will of his bishops will soften his former stridency and replace fear with trust. Perhaps Joseph Ratzinger will be true to the papal name he choose and become a peacemaker like Pope Benedict XV and an evangelizer in the mould of St. Benedict, who brought Christianity and civilization to a pagan Europe.
Perhaps the collective wisdom of the College of Cardinals, inspired -- they would say -- by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will be borne out in the emerging papacy of the man who, before he became pope, was arguably the most controversial figure in the Roman Catholic Church.
What do you think? Was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger the right choice to become the new pope?
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