Pope uses first trip abroad to introduce own style, priorities

Appearance answers doubts on how he would compare to John Paul

August 23, 2005|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,SUN STAFF

Four months into his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI is beginning to make clear the ways in which he will continue the work of his predecessor - and how he will differ.

Where Pope John Paul II created World Youth Day to renew his rapport with young believers, the new pontiff used his first trip abroad last week to introduce his own style and priorities to the larger church and beyond.

Visiting a synagogue and meeting with Protestant and Muslim leaders in Germany, he signaled a willingness to continue the interfaith dialogue important to Pope John Paul - welcome news to religious leaders concerned by his writings on the primacy of Roman Catholicism when he was the chief doctrinal official at the Vatican.

At the same time, he preached a new message of evangelism, calling on believers to rescue friends from what he called "do-it-yourself" religion, bring them to Mass and help them discover "the true star which points out the way to us: Jesus Christ."

The four-day appearance in Cologne, culminating in a Mass before an estimated 1 million young people, afforded believers and nonbelievers alike a first sustained look at the new pope. He answered doubts about how he would compare to his predecessor, appearing comfortable before the crowds gathered for this year's World Youth Day and winning high marks for his performance in private meetings as he forged his own way through the event.

"It's a cliche to say that everyone knows he's not going to be John Paul II," said Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University. "He doesn't have the panache and the personal charisma that John Paul had. But that being said, he also is somewhat less interested in the cult of personality. I think he's a person who wants to focus on Jesus Christ as the central figure and less so on himself."

Pope Benedict arrived in Cologne as one of many skeptics about the lasting impact of World Youth Day on those who attend. Still, he clearly appreciated the opportunity it afforded to better acquaint the world with his vision for the church.

That vision includes a concern for the secularization of the West, which he called "a strange forgetfulness of God ... in vast areas of the world today." The pope who had spoken in the past of a "mustard-seed church" - smaller and more faithful - now stressed a need to attract new believers to the faith.

"This is where he's really showing us how important this name Benedict was to him," said the Rev. David Collins, a professor of history at Georgetown. "Because what did Benedict do? Benedict founded the monastic movement that was so important in the Christianization of Europe in the early Middle Ages.

"This idea of commissioning his listeners to evangelize as a way of taking their own faith more seriously fits right into that tradition."

Pope Benedict's interest in preserving the Christian character of Europe - he has opposed the admission of Muslim Turkey to the European Union - and his previous writings on the primacy of the church have aroused the apprehension of other religious leaders.

He appeared to address their concerns with his visit to a synagogue, where he paid respects to Holocaust victims, and his meetings with Muslim and Protestant leaders.

Some Muslims expressed disappointment that Pope Benedict did not visit a mosque.

Collins said the meetings with Protestants should be of particular interest to Americans. Germany is one of the few large European countries that has, like the United States, substantial populations of Catholics and Protestants.

At Mass on Sunday, the pope urged believers to remain true to the church.

"Do not be deterred from taking part in Sunday Mass, and help others to discover it too," he said. "Seek communion in faith, like fellow travelers who continue to follow the path of the great pilgrimage."

Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, said the message was in keeping with Pope Benedict's vision for Catholicism.

"He does have a belief that the revitalization of the church, historically and in fact, will come from the inside out," he said. "That is, from small groups of committed Catholics acting as a kind of a leaven in the church."

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