The fifth anniversary of Pope Benedict’s election may strike many faithful Catholics as a somber occasion in light of the worldwide media campaign against the Holy Father. I prefer to look at things from a different perspective, and see the brutal criticism as a sign of the Pope’s fidelity to his mission. It was inevitable, was it not, that a strong Pontiff would provoke a strong reaction?
Blessed are you when men revile and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:11-12)
On April 19, 2005, when the newly elected Pope Ratzinger appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, I was immediately struck by his calm, gentle smile. He, of all men—after years of service at the Vatican, guarding against false teaching and more recently plowing through thousands of reports of clerical abuse—knew the problems that faced the Church. He knew the demands that would be placed on him. He knew that his old age would be marked by toil and care, that he would never enjoy the quiet, scholarly retirement he had sought. Still, he radiated serenity; his facial expression on that day showed not a trace of concern. Even before he stepped out on the loggia to begin his work as Roman Pontiff, he had embraced God’s will for his ministry.
In the early hours of the new pontificate, commentators predicted that Benedict XVI would be less popular and more confrontational than John Paul II. They were wrong on both counts. Although he undeniably lacked the charisma of his predecessor, the new Pope drew even larger crowds to his regular weekly audiences. And while he had written extensively on the need for serious reform within the Church, he did not embark on any hasty campaigns. On the contrary, he made the “hermeneutic of continuity” a keystone of his pontificate, signaling that he would fully support the reforms of Vatican II—with the important proviso that the Council’s teachings must be understood in the light of prior Catholic tradition.
Rather than rushing into a program of reform (like a political leader taking advantage of his first 100 days in office), Pope Benedict has advanced his vision in a series of carefully prepared steps. It is interesting to note that most of his significant initiatives have caught the world by surprise. This Pope does not run his ideas up flagpoles; he does not use strategic leaks to test public opinion. His challenge to Islam (and to secular Europe) at Regensburg; his gesture toward reconciliation of the Society of St. Pius X; his move to encourage wider use of the traditional liturgy; his open invitation to Anglicans—all caught the world by surprise.
Still, with the passage of time, the overall trend of this pontificate has clearly emerged. Pope Benedict is aiming to end decades of confusion, to challenge an increasingly hostile world to recognize the authority of the Church’s Magisterium. That goal is inimical both to secularists outside the Church and to dissidents within.
It is not surprising, then, that today we find the secularists and the dissident Catholics united in a common cause: to portray this Pope, who has been the leading champion of reform in the Vatican hierarchy, as a foe of reform. The charges themselves cannot be sustained. The ferocity of the campaign betrays the desperation of the Pope’s critics.
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