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Europe's New Pope: A Different Agenda?
by Dr Harry Hagopian - Ecumenical, Legal & Political Consultant

9 May   |   2005   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Ever since the not-so-unexpected but nonetheless prompt election of Pope Benedict XVI, the Benedictine Order has become popular again. Even BBC2 television in the United Kingdom is showing a documentary about the Benedictine brethren of Worth Abbey in West Sussex! Christians are becoming re-acquainted with the 1500-year-old Rule of St Benedict advocating a regimen of prayer, abstinence and hard work.

Benedict: this name is clearly indicative of the new pontiff's programme, and represents an astute choice that is replete with theological depth. After all, St Benedict founded a way of life that saved Europe's culture from destruction during the Dark Ages, and I believe that the new pope today considers Europe to be in a new dark age of materialism and relativism in need of focused pastoral attention.

Even as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pope resisted a tendency that saw the Second Vatican Council as a 'super-council' whereby the history of the church began in 1962. "Benedict" plumbs the depths of that history down to the first Christian century, when the Latin and Greek churches were still in union. The great Latin liturgy and Gregorian choral chanting have special ties with the Benedictine order. At his installation, the new pope reverted to a wool pallium in the style worn by the pontiffs of the first millennium. He had the Gospel chanted in Latin and Greek, as once was done at every Papal mass. Clearly he sees in the ancient liturgy an expressible sign of unity between the Eastern and Western lungs of Christianity.

Therefore, Pope Benedict's strictness in matters of doctrine is partly an answer to a perceived loss of clarity in both dogma and liturgy following the Second Vatican Council. But his main goal in restoring the liturgy is a quest for reconciliation with the Byzantine Church. Exactly how charged this project is may be deduced in the words he spoke as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, that in reconciling with Rome, the Orthodox Church should not be expected to accord any greater primacy to the pope than it did before the schism.

In trying to stabilise his own embankment, I believe Pope Benedict XVI would depart from those teachings of his predecessor that centred on humanity in its God-given dignity. Instead, the current pope might turn back to the nature of Jesus. After all, a creeping Arianism - the idea that Jesus was not of the same substance as God - has long influenced Western theology. It would not be untrue to character if Pope Benedict XVI were to invest much of his zeal in the effort to recast the concept of the divine incarnation in new language. This would once again render it fathomable to modern-day theologians, teachers and intellectuals.

Pope Benedict XVI may well be convinced that democratic institutions have as little right to interfere in the structure of the church as the many emperors and kings who tried to do as much in past centuries. In this, he might even court serious unpopularity with some of his own fellow German and Bavarian clergymen. But coming from the lips of a man convinced there is no contradiction between faith and rationality, his new bearings would be challenging let alone stimulating for Christianity.

Anybody who has been enriched with any measure of Benedictine teaching will have learnt that obedience, silence and humility are not such irredeemably anachronistic traits in our post-modern world that searches for a system of values. After all, obedience is about listening, whereas silence is about having space and humility is about being realistic. St Benedict's namesake at the Vatican today is both philosopher and theologian, and he has developed a style that is crystal clear in its simplicity, but that never simplifies the complicated topics. In this too, the pope exhibits the virtue of becoming a good shepherd of souls.

I cannot conjecture how long this 265th Petrine pontificate might last, but I do not summarily discount it as either transitory or unremarkable. And although I have focused more pointedly on his European ministry, the pontiff is faced with many other pressing agendas across different continents too. So we could experience much movement from St Peter's successor, and I suspect that St Benedict might still have the last laugh!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2005   |   9 May


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