The quiet riot: 5 surprising ‘firsts’ of Pope Benedict XVI
Upon his election to the papacy, we all thought we knew who Pope Benedict XVI would be. “Is anyone sure what will happen to Church unity now if the oppression of thinkers and the suppression of questions becomes a papal norm,” asked Sister Joan Chittister after the conclave. Reporter John L. Allen, a knowledgeable Vatican insider, however, speculated that a Ratzinger papacy could have some surprises in store. In fact, Benedict did surprise the world in many ways, not least with his wholly unexpected resignation — the first papal resignation in nearly 600 years.
Pope Benedict XVI was the first pope to do many things, however, and as the modern Church determines exactly what the funeral liturgy of a retired pontiff should look like, we will doubtless witness a few more “firsts.” Until then, it is worth taking the time to reflect on all the ways the unassuming Bavarian pope broke new ground during his eight years of papal leadership.
Embracing new media
Today the @Pontifex (“bridge builder”) handle on Twitter has over 18 million followers, and we don’t think twice about it, but in 2012 the notion of a pope embracing social media to encourage the faithful was nearly unthinkable. Benedict, though, had already demonstrated a keen interest in the evangelical possibilities presented by new media. In May 2011 he invited several hundred bloggers — lay folk and clergy — to discuss exactly that. A month later, in his World Communications Day address, he waxed enthusiastic over the digital age’s “unprecedented opportunities,” while almost prophetically anticipating a risk that sounds uncomfortably familiar to many of us: “Does the danger exist that we may be less present to [others, and] more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world ‘other’ than the one in which we live?” His advice against that, unsurprisingly, was pure Benedict: We are to be like “the risen Jesus when he joined the disciples on the way to Emmaus” (Lk 24:13-35).
Benedict, the “Green Pope”
This one may surprise people because his successor Pope Francis issued Laudato Si‘, the groundbreaking encyclical on the environment (and that’s a good example of how continuums develop from one papacy to another). In 2009, Allen wrote of Pope Benedict’s “remarkable ecological sensitivity” in having solar panels installed atop the Vatican’s audience hall, also citing Benedict’s inclusion of environmental concerns in the 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, where he wrote, “When nature, including the human being, is viewed as the result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism, our sense of responsibility wanes. [We end up] abusing it” (No. 48). Benedict observed that promoting peace in the world relied, in part, on resolving our environmental issues and observed, sagely, “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa” (No. 51).
The argument is made that Pope Benedict, both as head of the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and as pope, did not do enough to address the sexual abuse crises whose revelations have been roiling the Church for two decades. In the face of hundreds of thousands of victims throughout the world, it is difficult to know how any pope could ever do “enough,” but Benedict — while he was still Ratzinger at the CDF — created new rules and procedures to help identify and prosecute predator priests, codifying them into law in 2010, during his papacy. He prosecuted the deeply disturbing Father Marcial Maciel Degollado and sentenced him to a life of “prayer and penance.” He imposed similar sanctions against the disgraced (now laicized) former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, although enforcement in that case seems to have been poorly handled).
Still, on Benedict’s first Good Friday as pope, he decried the “filth” in the Church, and he was the first pope to personally meet with abuse victims and to apologize to them. Between 2004-2014, the Vatican defrocked 848 priests for rape or abuse-related causes, with Benedict laicizing nearly 400 of them during the last two years of his papacy. His 2010 letter to the anguished and shaken Church in Ireland was moving, prayerful, contrite and deeply pastoral. As Pope Francis recently apologized to the victimized indigenous people of Canada, Benedict said to Ireland, “You have suffered grievously, and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. … It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel. At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope”(No. 6).
In another example of a pontifical continuum, Pope Francis has wisely permitted the Vatican’s still-troubled finances to undergo secular scrutiny, but after the Vatican crafted new transparency laws in 2010, it was Benedict who, in 2011 (and with rumored resistance within the Vatican) brought in Moneyval, the monitoring body created by the Council of Europe in order to counter money laundering and terrorist financing, and let them see the books. “This was the first time the Vatican opened itself to review by an outside body,” wrote Father Thomas Reese at the National Catholic Reporter, adding, “Because of Benedict, Moneyval periodically reviews and publicly reports on the Vatican’s progress, or lack of it, on financial reform.”
The Pilot Pope
Ending on a slightly lighter note, and still a surprising one, Pope Benedict XVI was reportedly the first pope ever to fly a helicopter from the Vatican to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence. He never pursued a driver’s license, but at some point Joseph Ratzinger became a pilot, licensed to fly small-engine planes or helicopters. There seems to be only one source for the story, so details are sketchy, but hopefully more information on this tidbit will emerge. There is something delightful in imagining this soft-spoken, highly scrutinized man, called “God’s Rottweiler” by some, escaping the Vatican to enjoy a bit of playtime in the sky.
Elizabeth Scalia is culture editor at OSV News.