Pope Benedict XVI will have large shoes to fill as he follows in the footsteps of John Paul II. And follow in them he will, as he has long been thought to be John Paul II’s favorite to succeed him.
The name that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took upon being elected supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict XVI, has caused many to speculate on the form and shape his reign may take.
Benedict XV was the pope during World War I who sought to prevent the great conflict that plunged the 20th century into decades of turmoil. Will the new Benedict seek to use his office to reconcile the differing factions of our present age and prevent the emergence of another time of world conflict?
Or perhaps he chose the name in honor of St. Benedict, who in the sixth century was a major figure in the spread of Catholicism on the European continent. If so, his choice of the name may indicate that he sees defending Catholicism in Europe as a central part of his mission.
Time will tell which of these he has most in mind, or whether both play a role in his thinking. He has made public statements in support of both themes.
As a peacemaker, the 78-year-old pontiff has said he wants to continue “an open and sincere dialogue” with other religions and would devote himself to the ecumenical cause. And as a defender of the Christian faith in Europe, he has called for Europe to seek out and recover its Christian roots “if it truly wants to survive.”
Balancing the two will be a challenge, especially in light of the fact that he was the prime force behind the 2000 document “Dominus Iesus” (Latin for “Jesus the Lord”), which angered Protestants, Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians who viewed with alarm its statement that the Roman Catholic Church is the only “instrument for the salvation of all humanity.”
He has also angered Turks with his opposition to Turkey’s proposed entry into the European Union. His opposition appears to be based more on religion than on geography. “Europe was founded not on a geography,” he explained, “but on a common faith. We have to redefine what Europe is …”(emphasis added).
Papal biographer George Weigel, commenting just minutes after the first public appearance of Benedict XVI, said he expected the new pope’s first priority would be the “reconversion of Europe.” It is clear the church’s identity and influence in Europe is waning. Not only has a modern materialistic culture sapped the spiritual focus of the continent, but it also is under great pressure from a rising Muslim population.
Pope John Paul II was distressed when the present European constitution failed to reference Europe’s historic Christian roots. Look for the Catholic Church under Benedict XVI to focus on what it sees as threats to the heartland of Christian civilization and take steps to revitalize its presence and influence in Europe. The Roman Catholic Church has not written off Europe as dead. Their identity and future are closely bound together.
The Catholic Church has been historically wedded to the powers of Europe through various alliances and compacts. Though this relationship has been weakened in modern times, the Bible shows a point in the future when this church-state relationship will come together again. The result will be a world power unlike any seen before. We are watching history unfold before our eyes.