Pope Benedict Holds First Christmas Mass

Pope Benedict XVI delivered the first Christmas Mass of his papacy Sunday. He has been head of the Roman Catholic Church for less than a year, but his policies are beginning to take shape.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

At St. Peter's Basilica today, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his first Christmas midnight Mass as leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: May the birth of the prince of peace remind the world where true happiness lies and may your hearts be filled hope and joy, for the savior has been born for us.

HANSEN: Eight months after his election as pope, Benedict is drawing huge crowds but he's still something of an enigma. Vatican watchers have observed his evolution from theological watchdog to shepherd of the world's Roman Catholics, but those analysts say they're still waiting for him to impose his own style on the Vatican bureaucracy and on the church. Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

In his only formal TV interview as pope, Benedict XVI told Polish television in October that his personal mission is not to issue many new documents but to ensure that the work of his predecessor, John Paul II, be assimilated. In fact, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he played a large part in formulating those works and in upholding church bans on married clergy, women priests and gay seminarians. But the emerging papal style of the man once described as `God's Rottweiler' is very low-profile. He has cut back on group meetings and speeches and chosen not to preside over beatification Masses. Church historian Alberto Melloni says Benedict appears to be governing from behind the scenes.

Mr. ALBERTO MELLONI (Church Historian): He has been a sort of a hidden pope, no trips, just a few documents, ...(unintelligible).

POGGIOLI: One of the focal themes of this papacy was outlined even before it began, in the homily Cardinal Ratzinger delivered the day before he was elected pope.

Cardinal JOSEPH RATZINGER: (Through Translator) We're moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize any certainties and which has as its own highest goals one's own ego and one's own desires.

POGGIOLI: As pope, Benedict has made it clear he considers secularism and relativism the most serious threats to the Catholic faith. Gustav Hallenstam(ph), a professor of theology at Lund University in Sweden, who has worked as an adviser to Joseph Ratzinger, says the pope does not fear a clash between religions but rather an attack against religions.

Professor GUSTAV HALLENSTAM (Lund University): The real clash is between secularized culture, which has no sense for religion and tradition, and those other more traditional cultures.

POGGIOLI: Earlier this month Benedict warned that what he described as Christianophobia is spreading around the world and that religious freedom is under threat not only from direct political repression but also by what he called the predominant culture of agnosticism and relativism. And the pope has written that the fundamental rights of the human being are not created by lawmakers but are inscribed in the very nature of the human person and hark back to the creator.

Liberal journalist Ogenio Scalfori(ph), one of Italy's most influential opinion makers, says Benedict is challenging the fear of politics.

Mr. OGENIO SCALFORI (Liberal Journalist): (Through Translator) Benedict sees relativism as the devil incarnate but he doesn't seem to realize that relativism is the essence of democracy. Democracy doesn't recognize privileges, whether white, black or yellow, whether Muslim, Catholic, Protestant or atheist. Everyone is equal.

POGGIOLI: For Benedict, Europe is ground zero in the church battle against secularism and relativism. George Weigel, a Catholic theologian and author of a new book on Benedict's election, says Ratzinger was chosen as the man who could reignite Christian faith in Europe.

Mr. GEORGE WEIGEL (Catholic Theologian): Europe is the historic heartland of Christianity, and it would not be a good thing for either Europe or Christianity were Europe to, in effect, slide off the edge of history into a kind of irrelevance or, even worse, into a genuine clash of civilizations.

POGGIOLI: Benedict sees a revitalized Christian Europe as the only means to avert such a clash, a Christian Europe that can set the terms of dialogue with the growing Islamic presence on the continent. John Allen, Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, says that whatever its size, Benedict wants a Catholic Church that is clear about its identity and passionate about its goals, a Catholicism with muscle.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (National Catholic Reporter): He wants a church that is clearly focused on core objectives--that is, core teachings, core principles--above all that's reasserting the idea of objective truth, an objective truth that's disclosed in the person of Jesus Christ, and that has practical consequences for society.

POGGIOLI: Consequences such as a legal defense of the family and the church's traditional sexual morality and the outlawing of abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research and euthanasia. Vatican watchers are perplexed that Benedict has not yet announced new appointments and staff changes in the Vatican bureaucracy. And they're eagerly awaiting the imminent release of the major document, Benedict's first encyclical, in the hopes that it will provide further insights into a papacy that's still in its predecessor's shadow.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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