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I didn’t really plan to write about the pope, mostly because I knew that everyone else would probably be doing so. But as I considered other topics, it became more than clear that none of them would do, at least not while Benedict XVI was on American soil.
Watching the news media fawn over the man in white is always a bit interesting. I think you can tell right away which newscasters are Catholic. No matter how hard they try, they just can’t filter the excitement from their voices. I also get a laugh out of how a lot of truly excellent journalists seem to struggle with official terminology. Within the first hour of the pope’s arrival, I heard people on the news station I was watching refer to clericals as “vestments,” and pronounce the word “papal” in a way that rhymes with “apple.” But the most amazing thing to me is the tangible affection our press seems to have for this pope. After John Paul the Great, who would have expected it?
I have to admit, I didn’t. In part, it’s because I still feel the absence of John Paul’s name in the eucharistic prayer. I was happy with the conclave’s choice for stability. But I also remember the suspicion and nervous anxiety some expressed when then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger walked out onto the balcony. Anyone who followed Church news even just a little bit knew of Ratzinger’s reputation as a theological guard dog. The press hailed John Paul as a “rock star.” They twiddled their thumbs at Cardinal Ratzinger’s scholarly disposition, and cringed at many of the doctrinal clarifications he wrote.
In the last few years of his pontificate, the media began to present John Paul as an out-of-touch, right-wing extremist. But even then, Cardinal Ratzinger was often painted as more conservative and traditional than the pontiff under which he served.
No one really knew where Josef Ratzinger would take the Church. But after three years, one thing seems certain: there is no Pope Ratzinger. This Holy Father knows that he is no longer a gifted theologian charged with guarding the tenets of the faith through a particular office of the Vatican. Benedict XVI is the successor of Peter, the pastor of the Universal Church, and the vicar of Christ.
What I have come to love about Pope Benedict is precisely that he is not another John Paul, but even more so, that he doesn’t try to be. Benedict has done and is doing everything in his power to preserve the memory and legacy of John Paul. In fact, it seems to me that he is more concerned about that than he is about etching his own memory or legacy into the fabric of the Church. There have been moments in which it is very clear that the dialogue between these two old friends continues still, across the gulf between this world and the next. Benedict was well-loved by John Paul. He openly reciprocates that honor and affection.
Benedict XVI knows his strengths, and uses them well. Few in any discipline could claim a sharper mind. He is physically more robust than John Paul was at his age. I, for one, was impressed with the pace of his gate at Andrews Air Force Base. But he also seems to know his personal limitations, and is humble enough to live and work within them. Benedict’s personality is more reserved, and less dramatic than his predecessor. But he is content to simply be who he is, and offer all of it in service to Christ for the Church and the world.
Against the backdrop of a presidential campaign in which the words “ideas” and “change” seem to hold the most sway, there seems to be a real attraction--even affection--for a man who represents a Truth that does not change, but rather changes us. Perhaps it is because when all is said and done, most of us suspect that heroic resumes, good ideas, and inspiring speeches aren’t enough. Perhaps underneath it all we know that when it comes to changing the world, the best place to start is our own souls.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as faith formation coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.