Benedict's Papacy Looks Inward in First Year

It's been a year since Pope John Paul II died, ending one of the longest papacies in the history of the Catholic Church. Host Liane Hansen speaks with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome to assess the first year of Pope Benedict's tenure.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

One year ago today, Pope John Paul II died, bringing to an end one of the longest papacies in the 2,000 year history of the Catholic church. His reign made history. He was a catalyst for the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, and was the most traveled Pope. John Paul's successor, Benedict the 16th, was his close aide for a quarter of a century.

To talk about the papacy in the year since John Paul's death is NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

Sylvia, first Benedict the 16th, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: he was chosen in one of the shortest conclaves ever, in the name of continuity. How has this played out in his first year of his papacy?

SILVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

Well, Benedict has reiterated all of John Paul's position on doctrinal issues and has quietly eased into his role as Pope. He's been described not as a bulldozer but as a plow that moves the Earth slowly but steadily. You know, as Cardinal he wrote many of John Paul's major documents, and as Pope he says it's now time those documents be carefully studied and digested.

Where the two Popes differ is mainly in style. John Paul was a master of grand gestures and big ceremonies and large crowds and he masterfully used TV to broadcast his message to the world. Benedict is more introverted. He has cut back on the number or public ceremonies and private audiences and he'll travel much less than John Paul. And as a staunch traditionalist, he has revived several Renaissance-style papal vestments; some say Benedict looks like a pope painted by Raphael.

You know, what is very interesting though is that he is drawing as big crowds as John Paul did and people are closely following his every word. While John Paul was looked up to as a pastor, Benedict is being listened to as a teacher.

HANSEN: John Paul was the first non-Italian Pope in 500 years. Of course, he was born in Poland. Benedict XVI is German. Is his national origin having any impact on his papacy?

POGGIOLI: Well, it has certainly shifted the focus westward. John Paul was interested in the entire world and in particular, he saw the newly liberated societies of Eastern Europe as an inspiration in revitalizing Catholicism throughout Europe. But Benedict is focusing on Western Europe, which he sees as the cradle of the Catholic Church, now transformed into a secular wasteland gripped by what he calls moral relativism. And he hasn't hesitated to urge European lawmakers to respect Catholic values in their legislations, meaning protection of life from conception to natural death, recognition that the family is based on marriage between a man and a woman, and state subsidies for Catholic schools.

He calls these non-negotiable values. He's been described as Eurocentric with little interest in the Third World, even though that's where the number of faithful is growing. He seems to care more about filling church pews again in Europe than in winning new converts in Africa. And we saw this clearly last week with his first new cardinals. There were no Africans, but he added two new Americans and two new Italians, giving them a disproportionate representation. One analyst said this reflects Benedict's belief that Italy and the U.S. are two religious islands that could help revitalize Catholicism throughout the Western world.

HANSEN: What about relations between the Roman Catholic Church and other churches, as well as with non-Christians, Jews and Muslims. Have there been any changes?

POGGIOLI: Well, Benedict is not enthusiastic about the ecumenical meetings that took place during John Paul's papacy that appear to put all religions on the same footing. But he is very keen to heal rifts among Christians and has made several overtures to the orthodox. As for non-Christians, Benedict has met several times with Jewish leaders. He visited a synagogue last August and will visit the concentration camp at Auschwitz next month. Jewish groups have hailed his outreach.

But it's over Islam that Benedict and his predecessor most differ. John Paul was the first pope to visit a mosque in Damascus, but when Benedict met a group of Muslims in Cologne last year, he hosted them on his turf in the archdiocese. John Paul met with Muslims more than 60 times. He believed in reaching out to Muslim moderates and avoided confrontations.

Benedict, on the other hand, is considered a hawk. He recently removed the Vatican's top expert on Islam who was seen as too soft, wanting to promote dialogue with Muslims at all cots. And in recent speeches, Benedict has repeatedly spoken about the need for religious liberty, meaning that Christian minorities should have the same treatment in Muslim countries as Muslims have in the West. Nevertheless, he does seem willing to explore the possibility of a dialogue with Muslims because has confirmed that he will visit Turkey this year.

HANSEN: Pilgrims have been arriving in Rome by the, I think, tens of thousands to commemorate the anniversary of John Paul's death. Are there special services planned at the Vatican?

POGGIOLI: Well, the faithful have been invited to come to St. Peter's Square this evening, just as thousands of people gathered there for a vigil of prayer during John Paul's last hours. And tomorrow, Benedict will celebrate mass in St. Peter's Square in memory of his predecessor.

HANSEN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Sylvia, thanks a lot.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Liane.

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