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The legacy of Benedict XVI: Balanced change, Jesus-centered faith

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 13, 2013 - As the 116 cardinals prepare to make arrangements to return to Rome the week of March 15 to begin prayers and discussions for a few days and then be locked into Vatican City for their conclave meetings in the Sistine Chapel, they likely will be considering the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Someone similar to Benedict or someone very different, they will ask. Like him or complementary in skills, experience or personality, they will ask.

One of the most important aspects of Pope Benedict XVI's legacy may be that — like Pope John Paul II — he was at the Second Vatican Council, understood it and effectively worked to see that the way it was remembered and enacted within the church was "balanced."

That is the opinion of the Rev. James Swetnam, a Jesuit and biblical scholar who taught for 50 years at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome before retiring to his native St. Louis two years ago. "Benedict and John Paul both set in motion a sane interpretation of Vatican II."

He thinks that Benedict has been careful and effective in appointing new bishops.

"I think young bishops are a little more upfront with the faith," Swetnam said. "I hate to use the words liberal and conservative but the younger bishops Benedict has chosen are more conscious of their need to go back to Vatican II and see it in a more sane way, the way it really was."

The pope, who is 85, announced this week that he will leave his post on Feb. 28. Benedict was elected pope in 2005.

Benedict understood and made the point that while "Vatican II certainly brought in new modifications from previous thinking within the church, there never was a break with the past," Swetnam said. In his years of teaching in Rome with stints in seminary and diocese on six continents, Swetnam saw firsthand the great diversity and cultural difference of the Catholic Church. Benedict understood that, so the men he chose to become bishops had to be strong to lead Catholics in a secular world, he said. They are not the relaxed bishops of 40 and 50 years ago," he said.

Not a careerist

Swetnam met Benedict a few times, but said "I can’t say he’d know who I am."

"He's a very intelligent person. Of all the world leaders today, I think he is far and away the most intelligent, very able to analyze a situation."

Those who say Benedict didn't know what was going on in the world are naïve, Swetnam said. A pope spends much of his time hearing from the bishops, who are on the outside, and hears all the challenges. Swetnam also pointed to Benedict's many years as head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,  when he met with every Catholic bishop who came to Rome on their mandated visits.

"Benedict had planned to retire. He didn't want the job, did not have that ambition and is in fact humble, a very shy man — introverted," Swetnam said.

Swetnam said he was amused that many news reports were so surprised that, after his election, Benedict was a gentle crowd pleaser.

"They didn’t know him, but had called him a Rottweiler," Swetnam said. "As head of the Holy Office (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), he was very vigilant but he was not an attack dog. In fact pilgrims to the Vatican have increased under Benedict."

Eight years in the chair of St. Peter is a bit longer than average, Swetnam said, in reaction to talk of length of Benedict’s tenure. "Many of the medieval popes were only there for a couple years," he said.

His popular writings

The pope’s best-selling series of books on Jesus of Nazareth were part of Benedict’s effort to make Jesus the center of the Catholic faith, Swetnam said. That, along with helping people achieve a personal relationship with Jesus, was how Benedict sought to fight secularism.

That the pope found time to write and publish three books and three encyclicals is something as a wonder. Swetnam said that Benedict was a finer scholar than administrator.

"Pope Benedict’s three encyclical and his three books on Jesus may be his most important legacy," said the Rev. Gregory Mohrman, the prior at the St. Louis Abbey. According to the Rule of St. Benedict, Benedictine monks eat silently and listen to books of spiritual merit at dinner. St. Louis Abbey monks read Benedict’s book on the Passion of Jesus nightly at dinner last Lent. Last December during Advent, at dinner they read his newest book on Jesus’ infancy.

"They are wonderful examples of what he understands as a theologian but are really prayerful reflection with the use of reason. Always it is his prayer life that shines through," Mohrman said.

Travel and Traditions

Monsignor John Witt, a church history professor at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Shrewsbury, this weekend will tell his parishioners at All Saints Church how impressed he is with the work Benedict did in less than eight years.

The pope made "24 international trips to such varied places as Brazil, Cameroon, Lebanon, Israel, USA and Cuba, led millions in World Youth Days, (held) weekly audiences, and wrote three books on Jesus," Witt said.

Benedict established the Anglican Ordinariate for Episcopalians and Anglicans "to come home to the Catholic Church," while maintaining some of their beloved Book of Common Prayers. Witt also noted that Benedict "revived the Liturgy" and recovered the Tridentine — or Latin — Mass.

In the administration of the Vatican City, Witt noted that Benedict "ordered transparency of the Vatican Bank."

Witt said he was impressed by how the pope reached out to both "disaffected" wings of the Catholic Church: those who follow liberal German theologian Hans Küng and the far right wing Society of Saint Pius X.

"Quite a legacy," Witt said.

Looking into the future

"I think the main legacy for Benedict is that he was in for the long haul," said James Hitchcock, a Saint Louis University history professor. His book, "The History of the Catholic Church from Apostolic Days to the Third Millennium," was published to good reviews in December.

"Instead of accommodating various cultures’ demands to modernize, and so many people were clamorous for recognition, Benedict took the long view for the church. And you do that by not making accommodations.

"He was very aware of the hostility of the secular culture and tried to strengthen the church especially its leadership to endure that," Hitchcock said.

Hitchcock said he thinks the bishops’ appointments that Benedict made, at least those made for North America, which the professor knows best, were a "decided improvement" over many John Paul II made.

Interfaith Efforts

Benedict continued Pope John Paul’s work with interfaith groups and with other Christians said the Rev. David M. Greenhaw, president and a professor of preaching and worship at Eden Seminary in Webster Groves, who is also a leader of interfaith activity in the St. Louis region.

"He didn’t step back from what John Paul had done, though people thought he might drop rapprochement with other faiths," Greenhaw said.

Eden was having an interfaith seminar with about 60 leaders of many faiths across the St. Louis area the day eight years ago when Benedict was elected. Many were worried because they knew Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s reputation as a strict defender of Catholicism in his role as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"Not the Catholics," Greenhaw recalled. "They said that he would do well in the new office. They understood, knew the office of pope and that he would be a larger figure there. I was stunned by that reaction. They proved to be right."

Greenhaw said he was impressed that Benedict met six times with victims of sexual abuse by priests, but he said he believed that the pople should have done more. "No man could do enough to make up for decades of the church overlooking the scandal," Greenhaw said.

Greenhaw said he was also disapponted that Benedict did not do more to bring women into the leadership of the Catholic Church, not just for Catholics but for the church's worldwide ability to have role models for women.

"I don’t see that he moved the agenda for women in any way," Greenhaw said.

"The church needs to stand up for women worldwide, the world where so many millions of women have little freedom," Greenhaw added.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest  leadership group of American sisters and nuns, which has been under Vatican strict observation with orders to get more in line with church teachings, decided not to comment on Benedict's announcement. It released a statement thanking him for his many years of service to the church and adding their prayers for his future,

Benedict’s surprise resignation announcement was a shocking turn that could affect the way the cardinal electors — those cardinals under 80 and eligible to vote for the next pope — will look at a candidate’s age.

Now with such visibility in the digital, 24/7 age, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics has increased, almost non-stop, duties.

Swetnam, who is just a few months younger than the pope, is in semi-retirement and said his energy is not what it was even a few years ago. "People don’t know now much work being pope is," Swetnam said.

With the resignation as a precedent, future popes who are older 70 do not have to in fear of holding the responsibility for decades. Because this resignation is being taken with such grace and acceptance and charity by the world's Catholics, a younger, more vigorous man can be chosen knowing he can resign in his 80s or earlier for frail health.

"When elected in 2005, he (Benedict) famously remarked, 'I am but a worker in the vineyard of the Lord.' " recalled Monsignor Witt, who teaches Church history at Kenrick Seminary.

"Now the worker is tired and can’t keep up with the work. In humility he recognizes that and is stepping aside for a younger, more energetic man to take up the work in the vineyard."

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.