The year now ending has been a momentous one for Pope Benedict XVI and probably his busiest to date.
It began with his highly controversial decision to lift the excommunications on four break-away bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, and more or less ended with his historic decision to facilitate the reception of large groups of Anglicans into the Catholic Church.
But in between were many other significant events. The Pope made an eagerly anticipated pilgrimage to the Holy Land, published his first social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), held a Synod of Bishops on Africa, and canonised ten new saints, one of whom was a Belgian missionary who ministered to leprosy patients in Hawaii. He also closed a year dedicated to the life of the Apostle Paul and opened a new one in honor of priests.
Yet perhaps the most memorable moment in the Pope’s year was unplanned. The outcry caused by his lifting of the excommunications on four break-away bishops, one of whom was the Holocaust denier Richard Williamson, prompted Benedict XVI to take the unusual step of writing a highly personal letter to Catholic bishops.
The Pope humbly acknowledged that mistakes were made, even going so far as to say that his staff should have made better use of the Internet to find out more about Williamson’s past. But he also expressed his sadness at the hostility to his decision, making a point of thanking some Jewish leaders for showing greater sympathy than some Catholics. Although frustrating for him, the episode revealed the Pope to be sensitive yet resolute in pursuing his ecclesiastical vision, one which tries to unite the Catholic Church of today with its centuries of tradition.
Vatican communications were by no means blameless during what became known as ‘the Williamson affair,’ but much of the controversy was blown up by the mass media. The same pattern repeated in March when the Pope made his first trip to Africa. On the papal plane to Cameroon and Angola, Benedict XVI made the point that condoms exacerbate the spread of HIV/AIDS. His comments drew widespread criticism but support from some experts including one prominent Harvard professor who said empirical evidence backed up his claim.
This was a year of notable papal visits. In April, the pontiff visited the earthquake-hit Italian region of Abruzzo and in May he made a historic pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories – a journey he had been wanting to make for some time. Many feared the visit would attract further controversies and misunderstandings but miraculously, it was largely free of them, allowing the Pope to concentrate on encouraging the region’s dwindling Christian population and appealing for a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But perhaps more than anything, this was a year when great strides appeared to be made towards Christian unity. Catholic-Orthodox relations markedly progressed following this year’s election of Patriarch Kirill, already a well known figure at the Vatican, as head of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Pope hopes to form a united front with the Orthodox to combat relativism and hedonism in the West.
This was also the year the Pope formally reached out to disaffected Anglicans – something he has been keen to do for a number of years – and initiated talks with the break-away Society of St. Pius X.
It’s also been twelve months of many papal private audiences with groups and world leaders – over 200 in total – including with President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The latter meeting led to the establishment of full Holy See-Russia diplomatic relations, a fruit of closer relations with the Orthodox.
The Pope has also continued to focus on one of his greatest concerns: the re-evangelization of an increasingly secular Europe. He called for a revival of the continent’s Christian faith on a visit to the Czech Republic, now considered one of the most secular countries in Europe.
Benedict XVI also used the occasion of the publication of his long-awaited social encyclical Caritas in Veritate to draw attention to the financial crisis. The Pope argued against a market economy governed purely out of self-interest, and stressed that commercial logic alone cannot solve all of society's problems.
If Italian press reports are correct, one of his last major acts this year will be to issue a decree proclaiming that his predecessor, John Paul II, ‘Venerable’ – the penultimate step to beatification.
It will draw to a close a demanding year, one in which he also broke his wrist while on vacation. But even that accident failed to prevent him from working and fulfilling what he sees as his main purpose: to remind people of the Church’s message that God’s love is present in the world and in every person’s life.
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