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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 December 2005, 08:56 GMT
Low-key start for new Pope

By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

Eight months into his pontificate, the new leader of the 1.1 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church, Benedict XVI, is still living in the shadow of his predecessor John Paul II.

Germany's Joseph Ratzinger, the new Pope Benedict XVI, appears at the window of St Peter's Basilica's main balcony after being elected the 265th pope of the Roman Catholic Church 19 April 2005 at the
The Pope is seen as a traditionalist loyal to John Paul's views

The new Pope - Joseph Ratzinger - has so far given us few clues as to how he intends to tackle the daunting problems that his worldwide church faces.

Seen from Rome, these challenges include: the de-Christianisation of Europe, the poaching of believers in Latin America by evangelical sects, the sex scandals involving Catholic priests in the US and other countries, the deafness of countries like China and Saudi Arabia to calls from Rome for greater religious freedom for Catholic minorities.

The unexpected election of the first German pope in 1,000 years in April led to speculation that there might now be a shift in emphasis in the governance of his church, at the end of one of the longest pontificates in history.

Cautious start

Within the first eight months of their election, three of his most recent predecessors - John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II - had all left a powerful personal imprint upon their papacies.

John XXIII had decided to summon the Second Vatican Council, which later decided upon revolutionary changes inside the Catholic Church. Paul VI went on a groundbreaking journey to the Holy Land. John Paul II, visiting his native Poland, launched a powerful defence of the Solidarity free trade union movement, marking the beginning of the end of communist hegemony in eastern Europe.

But so far Benedict has moved extremely cautiously, never losing an occasion to praise his illustrious predecessor, and making very few new appointments among the top advisers he inherited from John Paul.

His promotion of Bishop William Levada, former head of the archdiocese of San Francisco, to fill the important Vatican post which Benedict himself occupied for two decades - prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - has been practically Benedict's only significant senior appointment.


The new Pope spent his summer holidays writing a new encyclical letter - the principal type of document in which popes express their teaching - due for publication early in 2006.

But he has already let us know that he has no intention of bombarding believers with a stream of new instructions on how to live their faith.

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict does not always dress traditionally however

He told Polish TV viewers in October in his first - and only - public interview so far (on the occasion of the anniversary of Pope John Paul II's election back in 1978) that he will not emulate the stream of encyclical letters (14 in all) produced by his predecessor.

Rather, he said, he wants his church first to assimilate the existing teachings of John Paul II.

Similarly it has become clear that Benedict has no ambition to challenge John Paul's world travel record (104 journeys, during which he visited 127 different countries).

He has so far made only one trip outside Italy - to his native Germany - for a World Catholic Youth Day Festival already planned by his predecessor.

Other journeys planned for 2006 include a summer trip to Poland, an official visit to Turkey, and another return to Germany, this time to his native Bavaria, where he also served as archbishop.

'Saint John Paul'

Nor is Pope Benedict expected to copy his outstanding predecessor's creation of hundreds of new role models for Catholic believers to venerate.

He has said he will no longer officiate personally at Vatican ceremonies for the beatification of men and women whom the Church wishes to honour for their saintly virtues.

The late pope created more new saints than all his predecessors combined - 1,338 blesseds and 482 saints.

Beatification marks the penultimate step before full sainthood.

But Benedict has made it clear that he is prepared to forego the rules and proceed - perhaps as early as 2006 - with the beatification of John Paul.

When he died in April, there were calls from many enthusiastic Catholics for the charismatic John Paul to be canonised immediately, notwithstanding the rule that there is normally a five-year period of reflection before the process can start.


In Rome, Joseph Ratzinger has always had the reputation of being a cautious realist.

In a 1995 interview he was asked to describe what Pope John Paul II meant when he said the third millennium would be a "springtime of the human spirit."

The then Cardinal Ratzinger hazarded that John Paul meant that in the new millennium the entire human family would come together to build God's kingdom.

The future pope then added dryly: "At the moment, I do not yet see it approaching."


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