For more than a quarter-century, John Paul II served as the emblem of the Roman Catholic Church, and during his papacy he enjoyed a previously unknown amount of exposure and public affection. He traveled to all corners of the earth and appeared in front of millions. He also became the first pope to visit a synagogue or a mosque. His pontificate was lengthy enough that he appointed all but three of the Cardinals eligible to vote for his successor, ensuring that his impression would continue to be felt well after his death. In a final testament to his popularity, over five million people journeyed to the Vatican to bid him farewell, one of the largest gatherings of humanity in recent memory.
Given this popularity, it should come as no surprise that the College of Cardinals elected as pope the man more instrumental than any other in helping John Paul II shape his papacy: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who chose the name Benedict. Benedict, the sixteenth pope to take that name, had for over twenty years the final word on doctrinal issues, and he was the last to be consulted before John Paul II made decisions of any consequence. Benedict himself wrote a great deal of the clarifications and philosophical defenses of Orthodox Catholic belief. He is a theologian as highly regarded as his predecessor.
Regardless of your beliefs, it is clear that Pope Benedict XVI will serve a dual role of unequaled importance and exposure; he will be both the spiritual leader of over a billion Catholics and a political figure on the world stage. His election will have important repercussions for Catholics and non-Catholics worldwide, but it is critical to distinguish between Benedict’s two very distinct roles.
The matters of doctrine that Benedict, in his role as Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith, has been so adept at elucidating must be left to Catholics to determine. It makes little sense for non-Catholics to criticize matters of religious faith. In terms of political power, though, the pontiff has an ability to raise awareness that is unmatched by any other religious figure. We are hopeful, then, that Benedict will show clear leadership and conviction in dealing with many pressing political problems that his unique role enables him to confront: the global AIDS epidemic, Islamic fundamentalism, and religious conflict. We hope that Benedict will be as effective and eloquent a steward of peace as was John Paul II.
A learned German theologian in his youth, Benedict was instrumental in one of the great reforms of the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council—the reform movement that decisively brought the Church into the modern age. During this council, Benedict was a key progressive voice arguing in favor of reuniting the clergy with the laypeople and emphasizing the Vatican’s role in working with the faithful rather than its authority over them. He has remained consistent in this belief and others, though the ideological label applied to him has changed drastically over the years. His recent remark that “The saints were people of creativity, not bureaucratic functionaries” suggests that he will not engage in the sort of bureaucratic crackdown some expect. We are hopeful that this spirit of creativity will be seen in Benedict’s pontificate, especially in his dealings with the young people whose imagination John Paul II captured so enthusiastically.
In his first Papal homily, Benedict noted that he envisions a Church that “looks with serenity to the past and is not afraid of the future.” We hope that Benedict maintains this forward-looking spirit throughout his papacy and follows through on the ambitious agenda he has already laid out. Benedict has loudly signaled the need for concrete actions to bridge the gaps that exist between Catholics and other Christians as well as those of other faiths. We share in Benedict’s hope that he will not let “his own light” become the focus, but rather that he serve single mindedly as a benefactor for humanity and use his office for the greater good of mankind. Benedict has sounded a tone of humility in his first hours as pontiff, a tone that accords well with a church accustomed to the example of John Paul II. If he succeeds in these tasks, he will not only be a worthy successor or a mere transition figure, but an excellent Pope in his own right.