Page last updated at 14:59 GMT, Thursday, 12 March 2009

Understanding the 'Scholar Pope'

Nearly four years have passed since the election of Pope Benedict XVI. They have been marked by several eruptions of controversy. David Willey reflects on the performance so far of the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Does the Pope live in a bubble?

Pope Benedict XVI
Early next week the Pope sets out on his first visit to Africa

Seated at his desk in his huge high-ceilinged penthouse study at the top of the Apostolic Palace, looking out over the bell towers, cupolas, monuments and rooftops of Rome, Pope Benedict may well reflect with satisfaction that nowadays the head of the Catholic Church is neither a "Prisoner in the Vatican" nor the "Pope-King," as some of his predecessors were called.

But he had to admit during a closed meeting with Rome's parish priests the other day that, cloistered in his frescoed palace, he does feel a bit remote, a bit distant from their lives and the daily challenges they face as they minister to a rapidly changing and an increasingly multicultural and multi-faith society in the Eternal City.

Earlier this week, on a rare official visit to Rome's City Hall, Benedict used a good phrase to describe the Italian capital. "This singular metropolis," he called it.

Rome really is an unusual place, for squeezed within its teeming metropolitan area is the Pope's surviving sovereign territory, occupying an area the size of 40 football pitches. A walled fortress complex and a park is all that remains of the former papal states of central Italy.

Behind city walls

Inside Vatican City quiet and order reign.

 view of St. Peters Basilica, framed by the iron balustrade of the Governors building in the Vatican City
Vatican City uses Italian in its legislation and official communications

Strolling through the Pope's manicured private gardens, under the ever-watchful eye of Vatican gendarmes, you can still hear the distant roar of Rome's incessant traffic just outside the walls.

Next to the offices of the governor of Vatican City is the branch line railway station where no passenger trains ever arrive, but duty free goods for Vatican employees enter the Pope's domain in a sealed wagon once a week.

Continuing around the back of Saint Peter's Basilica you come upon the former Mint (the Pope used to coin his own currency) and the kitchen garden and hothouses, which provide vegetables and cut flowers for the Pope's dining table and honey for his breakfast.

Vatican City also has its own Post Office and postage stamps, its own radio station and newspaper, the Osservatore Romano, a publishing house, a world famous library, and a dispensary and chemists shop run by monks and nuns where, incidentally, condoms are not stocked.

'Papal gaffes'

It is the Pope's Museums and the Sistine Chapel which attract the biggest crowds of all.

'Creation Of Adam' fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo finished the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos in 1512

Some four million visitors every year - far more than those attending papal audiences - pay their entry fees and swarm through the museum turnstiles, contributing to the upkeep of these unique collections of paintings, frescoes and sculptures reflecting the changing tastes of papal patrons of art down the centuries.

Well, to come back to the question I asked before. Does this strange gilded cage in which the Pope spends his life mean that he has become so detached from the ordinary concerns of the majority of his flock - so immersed in his theological and academic studies - that he is out of touch with ordinary Catholic believers?

I ask the question only because of a series of acts or remarks which have aroused surprise and criticism and have been described (even in the Catholic press) as "papal gaffes".

There was a reference to the historic connection between Islam and violence which caused serious offence in many Muslim countries.

There was a decision to readmit to the church a controversial traditionalist bishop. Benedict was "unaware" about the bishop's record of anti-Semitism, an official Vatican statement said.

In a letter addressed to the world's Roman Catholic bishops, Pope Benedict admits the case has been mishandled.

The Pope usually finds the right words in the end

And then there was the unfortunate promotion to bishop - quickly followed by resignation - of a controversial Austrian priest.

The priest's remarks about Hurricane Katrina being due to divine displeasure at the sins of the citizens of New Orleans had caused a mini-revolt in the Catholic church in Austria.

The answer appears to be that Pope Benedict runs a very tight ship and that he relies upon a tiny group of close advisers to help him make his decisions.

This may mean that sometimes the normal bureaucratic procedures, the checks and balances operating within the Secretariat of State (the nerve centre of the central government of the Catholic Church) are not being carried out correctly.

'Scholar Pope'

But meanwhile, a new encyclical letter by the Pope - his highest form of teaching - is about to be published.

It will deal with the moral and social issues behind the global economic crisis. He says it is proving more difficult to write than he first imagined because of the unexpected complexity of the meltdown.

But the Pope usually finds the right words in the end.

Standing on a balcony during his visit to Rome's City Hall, built over the site of a long vanished temple, Benedict sympathised with the plight of modern Romans who are losing jobs and suffering from the economic downturn just like everyone else.

The "Scholar-Pope" was unable to resist the temptation of quoting a line written in Latin, not from the Bible, but by the Roman poet Ovid 2,000 years ago: "Perfer et obdura: multo graviora tulisti."

"Endure and resist," he urged. "In the past you have overcome much more difficult situations."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 12 March 2009 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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