Monday, April 24, 2006

Except for two very special anniversaries, it was an unusually quiet week in the Vatican. Offices of the Roman Curia and Vatican City were closed from Holy Thursday to the Thursday after Easter the traditional six-day Holy Week vacation with a bonus day this year: Wednesday, April 19, marked the first anniversary of Pope Benedicts election to the papacy and such anniversaries are always a Vatican holiday.

In addition, Pope Benedict went to the summer papal residence at Castelgandolfo, about a half hour outside of Rome, for several days of rest and relaxation .

Had it not been for the 1.5 million visitors in Rome for Holy Week and Easter, you could have heard a pin drop in St. Peters Square!

Most of those visitors knew about the Holy Fathers anniversary Wednesday, and well over 50,000 celebrated with him during the general audience in St. Peters Square, serenading him and waving flags and banners in his honor. He came to Rome by helicopter from Castelgandolfo to preside at the weekly gathering and, after arriving in the piazza from the heliport, he circled it in his white open car, to the enormous enthusiasm of the crowd.

The Pope began the audience by thanking both the Lord, Who called me to serve the Church a year ago, and the faithful for their joy and acclamation, their spiritual closeness and prayers. How quickly time passes, he said. It has already been a year since in a totally unexpected and surprising way for me - the cardinals who gathered in conclave elected me to succeed our late beloved Servant of God, the great Pope, John Paul II. Benedict said he remembers with great emotion his first appearance on the central loggia of St. Peters after my humble election as well as all the successive encounters with the faithful over the past year.

I know I am not bearing alone what in reality I could never bear alone, said the Pope, repeating words he said on the day of his election. I feel you bear this with me and together we can carry forward with the Lords mission, he added, visibly moved by the many faithful, the colorful banners, and the shouts of well-wishers. He asked pilgrims to continue praying that, by Gods grace, I may always be a gentle and firm shepherd for Christs flock.

At the end of the audience, the Holy Father firmly condemned the terror attack Monday in Tel Aviv, Israel, saying It is not with such deplorable acts that the legitimate rights of a people are safeguarded. May the Lord, the Prince of Peace, be close to Israelis and Palestinians so they do not go tragically adrift but rather resume the steps that will allow them to live in peace and security side by side.

The day before the first anniversary of Pope Benedicts election as the 265th Supreme Pontiff, the Vatican announced that 4,078,600 faithful had participated in papal events during the first 12 months of his reign. The figures are only for Rome and include those present at this weeks general audience, the 47th such audience since the official and solemn inauguration of his papacy on April 24, 2005.

Benedict was elected at 5:50 p.m. on the second day of the 2005 conclave, on the fourth ballot. At 6:40 p.m., Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez stepped onto the central loggia of St. Peters Basilica and announced, Habemus papam. He told the world very slowly and in Latin that there was a new Pope, that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been elected and that he had chosen the name of Benedict XVI.

Moments later, the new Pope appeared on the loggia to the wild cheering of 200,000 people who, for the previous hour, had been flooding St. Peters Square, Pius XII Square and Via della Conciliazione the broad avenue that leads up to the Vatican. It was literally a river of people who ran, not walked, from the center of Rome and the vicinity of the Vatican, across bridges and whatever it took to get them to St. Peters Square. To someone unaware of the papal election, it might have seemed that Rome had been ordered to evacuate!

In the 12 months since his election, 1.12 million people have attended general audiences with October topping the list at 190,000 people in attendance and June following with 130,000. Almost 385,000 people have been received in special audiences and 697,200 have attended liturgical functions. 1.875,000 have been present in St. Peters Square for the Sunday noon Angelus.

It has been an amazing year in many ways, and a surprisingly tranquil one at that, confounding those who expected huge and immediate changes to be made by Pope Benedict in two areas in particular: the re-organization of the Roman Curia, and the liturgy.

That people would study Benedict XVI closely in an attempt to compare him to his predecessor is quite human. John Paul II was the only Pope some people had known for their entire lives the young people he so adored. For others his reign lasted one-half or one-third of their lives. So he was a known factor. He was also a pontiff full of surprises and innovations, the peripatetic Pope traveling the four corners of the globe, the prolific writer, the Vatican leader who daily welcomed people to Mass in his private chapel and met with countless groups in audience, who added a fourth decade of mysteries to the rosary and instituted World Youth Day and a number of other such days as well. John Pauls love of the theater, of drama, made him a natural on the worlds stage.

His profound humanity endeared him to all who met him or wished they had. One of my favorite stories is that of a young seminarian who was an acolyte for the Pope for a Mass. When he picked up the cruet to pour the water over the Popes hand for ablutions, there was no water in it! Pope John Paul played along, rubbed his hands together as if washing them and winked at the young seminarian, transforming a moment of potential embarrassment into one of never-to-be-forgotten joy.

We know this about Pope John Paul because we witnessed it for over 26 years. Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was on the same stage but a behind-the-scenes player for most of that time. He was known in the Roman Curia, and to all the world bishops who met him when they came to Rome every 5 years for their ad limina visits, but he was not well known by the public at large. What people did know about him came predominantly from what they read or heard in the media, and the picture drawn was of a man who was a rigid disciplinarian in matters of dogma and morals and a stern defender of orthodoxy. Which indeed he was! But the other side of the coin, if known at all, was rarely ever shown. One could reasonably ask: why such a one-sided portrait?

I remember being at Pope Benedicts very first audience as pontiff a year ago today as I write these words, April 23, 2005. He received several thousand members of the press who had been in Rome for John Pauls death, funeral and the subsequent conclave and election. Loud applause greeted him in the Paul VI Hall, his talk was warm and cordial, like the man himself. Many journalists seemed so surprised - that day and since - to be in the presence of a person known for being an intellectual giant but who was also warm, humble, cordial. Benedict was that day and is to the core of his being a gentle man and a gentleman.

I also remember telling one surprised journalist: You know, this side of Benedict is not new. He didnt become warm and humble the day he was elected. He has always been this way its just that no one looked for it or was open to this side of his personality.

I admit to having had a distinct advantage. In his first decade in Rome I met Cardinal Ratzinger when my then editor of the National Catholic Register was in Rome and he asked me to set up meetings with members of the hierarchy and the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was high on the list. I later interviewed the cardinal for a story for the NCR. But the most quality time in his presence was when I was present for the one hour, one-on-one interview that Raymond Arroyo of EWTNs The World Over did with the cardinal in July 2003. I was present as a translator in the event that Cardinal Ratzinger, who had said he would do the interview in English, decided to answer a question in Italian.

It was one of the hottest days of the summer and there was no air-conditioning in the room where we did the interview. The cardinal apologized for that and, notwithstanding the heat in fact, he seemed oblivious to it - sat there and answered our questions fully and at length. He was gracious to a fault, hospitable and gentle. One got the impression his entire day had been set aside for us whereas, in fact, important matters were always calling for his attention.

Now, a year after his election, what have we learned about the man and his style?

The day he was elected, Pope Benedicts first words to the world from the loggia of St. Peters Basilica were: The cardinals have seen fit to call to the See of Peter a simple and humble worker in the Lords vineyard. And a year later, at the general audience last Wednesday, he said he hoped, by Gods grace, to be always a gentle and firm shepherd of Christs flock.

And basically, that is what we have seen this past year, a simple and humble worker, a gentle and firm shepherd.

A year later, the whole world knows what few talked or wrote about before, namely that Pope Benedict is affable, humble, eminently likeable and a very warm, welcoming person. He is now center stage and enjoying it (though he had to work at achieving this comfort level), but we know he also enjoys being away from the glare. Away from the spotlight to have time to write, study, and pray. To review folders concerning the naming of new bishops, to examine how to best re-organize curial offices to better serve the Church, to study documents from congregations and pontifical councils, to inspect files on foreign affairs and the hot spots of the world. And, when time allows, to listen to music and play the piano. That down time that everyone needs, every day.

We know Benedict XVI has his own pace. Any decision he takes will come after long study, much consultation with collaborators, especially, as we have seen, with the College of Cardinals. Many believed that a year into his pontificate, most curial offices would have new leaders and that there would have been a giant slimming-down of offices and personnel. Those sweeping changes have not yet come to pass, though it is known that some are in the offing simply because of the age of the current prefects or presidents (some are nearing the retirement age of 75, others are well over it). A changing of the guard is expected in the Secretariat of State and an overhaul of the communications sector is also in the cards.

What is most outstanding to me about the Holy Fathers public appearances this first year of his pontificate, is his indescribable gift for ad-libbing, for off-the cuff remarks, and his superlative ability to teach and teach clearly. How many times has he set aside a prepared text to speak off-the cuff or interrupted himself while reading a text, put it down and then spoke in impromptu remarks. He has a gift for making people listen.

Anyone who has ever been a teacher and I have knows that you do not need a text if you are well versed in your subject. You can discourse at length about the subject and answer any question that comes your way. And, when you truly excel as a teacher, your explanations and your answers are clear, simple and understandable. That is Pope Benedicts style and his gift to us.

In a question and answer session during a meeting last fall with first communicants, the Pope was asked how we can know Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist since we cannot see Him. A fair question for an eight-year old. Benedicts reply was that we cannot see electricity but we can see its results the light that comes on when we touch a switch. And he proceeded to teach how Jesus, coming to us in the Eucharist, is the light of the world.

John Wilkins, former editor of Britains Catholic magazine, The Tablet, wrote that Benedict has the capacity to make his thoughts take wings, and he does that in books and can do it in his talks.

Collegiality, from day one, has been another hallmark of Benedicts pontificate. He has repeatedly said he cannot do his job alone and he thus seeks the counsel of others. He has had a number of meetings with the entire College of Cardinals (the latest was March 23, the day before the consistory to create new cardinals) and has held periodic meetings with top officials of dicasteries of the Roman Curia.

It is clear that Pope Benedict wants to live up to one of his titles Supreme Pontiff. From the Latin, pontifex maximus, the title translates roughly as supreme bridge builder. And he has shown great willingness to follow his predecessors footsteps in building bridges between the three monotheistic religions and also between the Church and cultures.

However, in building a bridge with Islam, we see the firmer side of Benedict, who is open to dialogue with Muslims, as was John Paul, but who is also demanding reciprocity. Muslims, for example, ask for, and receive, permission to build mosques outside their native country, yet often do not allow other religions to build churches in their country. It is well-known, for example, that Saudi Arabia not only does not allow churches to be built, it does not allow worship on any premise whatsoever, notwithstanding that a great percentage of foreign workers in their country are Christian.

Pope Benedict is a man of enormous faith and he has undoubtedly called on that faith many times in the last year as he adjusts to being the pastor of the Universal Church. Pre-eminently, he is a defender of that faith and all that this implies. He is a Pope who does not want to be at the center of attention, does not want people to come to Rome to see him, but rather to get to know the Church, to meet Christ. He told this to close collaborators shortly after his election. He wants Christ at the center of everything. He has placed Christ above all, at the center of his universe, his life and the life of the universal Church.

His first encyclical spokes volumes about Benedict the man. He did not chose a controversial topic, one that might have divided people or even invited criticism. He spoke of love, of how God is Love. He spoke of divine love and human love of eros - of how we should love others like God loves us and how we should show this love to our brothers and sisters, especially the neediest among us.

Benedict, like John Paul II, also holds enormous appeal for youth. This has surprised some but not the young people. He really connects with them. He has held meetings with young people on a number of occasions, starting with World Youth Day in Cologne last August. The most recent was World Youth Day on a diocesan level when he met tens of thousands of young people in Rome on Palm Sunday. And on that day he has promised the cheering Australians he will go to Sydney in 2008 when that city hosts WYD.

One writer, in a first anniversary article in an Italian newspaper, said that Benedict XVI, in his governing choices, follows only two criteria: the safeness of doctrine and the lifestyles of those called to share with the Pope the responsibility of leading the Church. He does this with gentle firmness, and those who know him well describe him as a meek but determined man.

Physically, Benedict seems to radiate energy and joy and health, apparently more energized by his many responsibilities as pontiff than by his previous position as prefect. You could watch his transformation, especially in how he handled general audiences, week by week, month by month. He gradually established his own style of interaction with people, though he meets far fewer on a personal level than John Paul did. At the end of every Wednesday audience, however, he does spend quality private time with all priests, bishops or cardinals who wish to meet him and exchange a few words. And each goes back to his job, knowing the Pope cared enough about them, about the Church, to spend extra time with them to listen and to learn.

In a way we can say he lived up to the challenge of being a worthy successor to the man he himself has called my predecessor, the great Pope, John Paul II and has lived down his reputation as a stern, unsmiling enforcer of doctrine.

There is much to say about Benedict XVI after a year. I have merely scratched the surface here and, with time, we can look at more issues and learn more about the man at the helm of the barque of Peter.

I was asked recently on a radio show what label I would apply to Pope Benedict after a year liberal or conservative. I replied by saying I felt that labels are simply convenient tags to categorize people and we all fall prey to using them at one time or another. For the media, for example, it is easier to define a person with a single word and for their readers to understand what that word means, if always used in the same context. I call a person a conservative, you know basically what that means, and so we are all happy.

However, someone as brilliant and erudite yet simple and down to earth - as Benedict XVI defies easy definition, easy labels. In a way, the wonder of this man in his first year is that people are still trying to define him to figure out who he is and where he is going. We will have to let time tell us more. And perhaps well have to do away with labels.


The cornerstone for St. Peters Basilica was laid exactly 500 years ago on April 18, 1506 by Pope Julius II in a spot that today we know as the pillar of St. Veronica, one of the four massive pillars named for saints that support the dome designed by Michelangelo. More than a century was needed to complete the church and the new basilica, built over the one erected by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century over the burial site of St. Peter, was dedicated on November 18, 1626.

A press conference Thursday in the Vatican announced the calendar of celebrations to mark the half millennium of the worlds most famous church. Events include a Mass of thanksgiving on the June 29th solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, an exhibit entitled Petros Eni (Peter is here), an international seminar on St. Peter in Scripture, Devotions and Iconography and commemorative medals and stamps. On November 19, the Vienna Philharmonic will perform Mozarts Solemn Requiem Mass. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, archbishop of Vienna, has organized and promoted the concert on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as well as for the 500th anniversary of the start of the construction of St. Peters Basilica.

Cardinal Francesco Marchisano, who has worked for the Holy See for 50 years and is currently the archpriest of St. Peters Basilica, said no other monument in the world had as many famous architects and artists work on it as did St. Peters, men such as Bramante, Michelangelo, Sangallo, Raphael, Fontana, Bernini and Maderno. He said the basilica archives have 3,050,000 documents that refer to it, from when work started 500 years ago right up to today.

Noting that between five and 20 thousand people visit every day, with as many as 30,000 during the high tourist season, the cardinal said he often goes into the basilica in the morning to speak with visitors. I am amazed when they tell me of their impressions at being in this church, whose structure and artistic decoration make it a true work of first evangelization.

Archbishop Angelo Comastri, the Popes vicar for Vatican City, noted that the cornerstone for the new basilica was laid outside the Constantinian basilica on a spot that corresponds today to Veronicas pillar inside the basilica. The decision to build a new basilica, he said, involved another dramatic decision: the demolition of the old basilica. This task was entrusted to Donato Bramante who, for this reason was called Bramante, il ruinante (Bramante the destroyer).

One can ask, he said, if a new basilica was desired, why wasnt a more adapt place chosen with respect to the steep Vatican hill? The reason was evident: they did not want to move even one centimeter from that site on the Vatican hill because ancient tradition affirmed this was the place where the Apostle Peter was buried.

Archbishop Comastri then explained how and when the tomb of St. Peter was discovered. In 1939, he said, Pope Pius XII began excavations under the Vatican basilica to prepare the foundation for the tomb of his predecessor. A heretofore unknown pre-Constantinian necropolis was discovered, including the famous red wall with the graffiti, or writing, that said Petros eni (Peter is here). The archbishop said it was thus true, walls can speak.

Known to visitors as the scavi (excavations), this necropolis is visited by an estimated 50,000 people a year, a mere fraction of those who request a scavi tour. Extremely limited space simply does not allow for larger numbers to visit one of the most incredible attractions of the Vatican and perhaps Rome. (A visit to the scavi requires reservations and the wait can be up to six months. So plan accordingly (I recommend patience and persistence). Reservations can be made through the web site of the Scavi Office

The Fabric of St. Peter is the office that is responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the basilica, and its workers are called sampietrini, referring to the Italian name of the basilica (sampietrini is also the Italian word for cobblestones). Cardinal Marchisano, who heads that office, explained that the income from the sale of tickets to visit the dome of St. Peters helps defray some of the expenses associated with cleaning the basilica. This cleaning includes, unbelievably, removing gum from the floor and pillars and other areas in the basilica as well as writing on the walls!

He told the story of an English university that sent 1500 Euro to the Vatican for expenses involved with cleaning graffiti that its students placed in the area of the dome.

The cardinal said that the first of each month Fabric officials hold a meeting to decide what cleaning or renovation projects they will undertake. Every Monday the basilica is checked by the sampietrini for work done the previous week or to see what work needs to be done. Asked about the health of a 500-uear old basilica, the cardinal said it is not only good, it is very good.

The Pontifical Swiss Guards, as well as the Vatican Museums, are also celebrating their 5th centenary this year.

Five hundred years! That is one-quarter of Christianitys history!


If youd like to write Pope Benedict a brief Easter message, go to the Vatican web site and click on the top of the page where it says Easter 2006.

Not only can you write to Pope Benedict (Greetings to the Holy Father) but you can listen to the liturgical music used for the Easter Season (Easter Music). Enjoy!

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