Pope Benedict Marks 80th Birthday

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Pope Benedict XVI turns 80 Monday. He has a new book out and will mark his second anniversary as pontiff Wednesday. On Sunday, St. Peter's Square hosted an early celebration.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

This is the day that Pope Benedict turns 80 years old. And on Wednesday the man once known as Joseph Ratzinger marks two years as leader of the Catholic Church.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on a moment to celebrate and to evaluate his time as pope.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Tens of thousands of people filled St. Peter's Square as the pope celebrated his birthday a day early.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Through translator) Today I am able to look back on 80 years of life. To all, my most heartfelt thank you. And I extend that to the entire church, which like a real family surrounds me with its affection, particularly at this time.

POGGIOLI: The focus of this papacy has been defense of Christian values, particularly in Europe, with Benedict drawing battle lines between the church and civil societies. The pope has ensured continuity with the outlook of his predecessor, John Paul II, putting his own conservative stamp on the papacy.

He has rejected calls to let divorced Catholics who remarry receive communion. He has told Catholic politicians they must wage the church's fight against abortion and gay marriage. He has reaffirmed that priests must be celibate and call for greater use of Latin in the mass. But many analysts expected a more dramatic Ratzinger revolution.

Mr. MARCO POLITI (La Republica): We are still waiting to see the direction this papacy will take.

POGGIOLI: Marco Politi is the Vatican correspondent of the daily La Republica.

Mr. POLITI: He wrote a very beautiful encyclical about the love as the core of the Christian message, which is very important today when there is the clash of different religious beliefs. But as exterior activity, this pontificate is a little bit on a treadmill. There are no signs of a movement forward.

POGGIOLI: Vatican watchers had been expecting improved relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church, and the opening of relations with China. There were expectations for church reforms and moves to tackle the serious problem of the worldwide priest shortage.

The intellectual Benedict is widely seen as a teacher rather than a pastor. This was underscored at a Vatican presentation of the pope's new book on Jesus. The 448-page tome refutes a modern interpretation of the gospels that emphasizes Jesus the man over the divine. Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, who studied under Ratzinger, said the pope is convinced it's possible to prove the divine nature of Jesus.

Cardinal CHRISTOPH SCHONBORN (Austria): (Through translator) The pope's training enables him to do this. For him, the Bible has always been at the heart and center of theology. In the many years I had him as a professor, I never saw him without the Greek version of the New Testament. I know no other professor of theology who has such an intimate knowledge of the Bible.

POGGIOLI: The most tumultuous moment of this papacy followed Benedict's controversial remarks suggesting Islam is violent and irrational. While he subsequently did much to dispel Muslim anger, Vatican correspondent Politi says Benedict does not want to give Islam the same status as Christianity and Judaism.

Mr. POLITI: He wants to negotiate with the Islamic world more like a social and cultural entity.

POGGIOLI: Benedict has several times suggested that his age insures that he will have little time in office. But he shows no sign of failing health or fatigue.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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