In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, this past year has been one of “great tribulations” for the Catholic Church which has been rocked by the clerical sex abuse crisis.
Addressing heads of the Roman Curia just before Christmas, the Pope reiterated the Church’s sorrow and penitence, adding that “every possible effort” should be made to ensuring it doesn’t happen again.
Although involving only a small minority of priests, it seemed as though every day of 2010 brought to light new abuse cases across Europe, set off by the damning results of government investigations into the Church in Ireland.
Benedict XVI would later compare the crisis to a “tremendous [volcano] cloud of filth” sent by the devil to coincide with a special year dedicated to priests. It was a cloud that would cast a heavy shadow over the Church for a good part of the year and even now it understandably hasn’t gone away.
Yet the 83-year-old Pope soldiered on and it was arguably his foreign trips this year — all of which were in Europe — that did much to help defuse the anger. His calls during those visits for repentance, humility, and reparation struck a chord with many inside and outside the Church, and they marked turning points in the crisis.
But beyond the tribulations, this year — when the Catholic Church celebrated Benedict XVI’s first five years as pontiff — actually saw a number of successes. It began with his Jan. 17 visit to Rome’s main synagogue — only the second by a Pope, but one in which he was warmly received despite a spate of recent controversies in Catholic-Jewish relations.
In April, Pope Benedict visited Malta, possibly the most Catholic country in the world. Half the island’s people turned out to cheer him during the nadir of the abuse crisis, offering him and the Church some timely solace and encouragement.
Soon after, as a real volcanic cloud over much of Europe dispersed, Benedict XVI received another enthusiastic reception when he visited Portugal.
The same was true during his June visit to Cyprus whose purpose was to prepare the way for a synod on the Middle East in October — a meeting that resulted in a resounding call for greater religious freedom in the region, and which was largely praised by all who took part.
But it was also a year in which the Catholic Church faced a rise in persecution in parts of the world, notably in Iraq where a terrorist attack on a Baghdad church at the end of October left more over 60 people dead.
On a personal note for the Pope, this year he announced he had completed the second volume of the book 'Jesus of Nazareth' (to be published during Lent 2011), dedicated to Christ’s Passion and the Resurrection.
Then in November, he issued his follow-up document to a 2008 synod on the Bible. He used it to encourage better use of the Bible at every level of the Church.
This year also saw an unusual papal publication. Entitled “Light of the World”, the book comprised six hour-long interviews the Pope gave to German author Peter Seewald in the summer. Many found it an enthralling read, offering for the first time a very personal glimpse into how a Pope deals with his office.
The Pope made a consistent point in the book, warning that man is increasingly in danger because of his unwillingness to turn to God, but that he can be saved through an encounter and relationship with Jesus Christ.
The launch of the book was overshadowed by a media-driven controversy and press misrepresentation concerning his comments on condoms and AIDS, not helped by what some saw as mishandling by Vatican communications.
Contrary to the perception, the Vatican insisted the Pope had not changed the Church’s moral position on condom use.
The book was part of the Pope’s push to try to re-evangelize an increasingly secular and relativist West, and this year he created a new Vatican department dedicated to that cause.
In September, Benedict made a historic state visit to Britain in the face of widespread fears of protests and even an outlandish stunt to have him arrested for the clerical sex abuse crisis. Yet the visit was widely viewed as a triumph: many were disarmed by Benedict’s presence, humility and message, which ended up silencing his critics.
Despite a rising tide of secularism in Spain, the Pope also pulled off a successful if quieter and shorter visit to Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona in November.
The past 12 months were something of a roller-coaster year for the Pope, one that presented him with arguably his most serious challenges to date. Yet despite his age, he managed to cope. And just how he did so is perhaps best explained by himself in “Light of the World”.
“One realizes very quickly that it is an immense office,” Benedict tells Seewald. “If one knows that one already has a great responsibility as a chaplain, as a pastor, as a professor, then it is easy to extrapolate what an immense burden is imposed on the one who bears responsibility for the whole Church.”
“But then of course one must be all the more aware that one does not do it alone: that one does it, on the one hand, with God’s help and, on the other hand, in a great collaboration.”
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