This year holds much in store for Pope Benedict XVI. The spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics is expected to embark on two historic papal trips, make significant leadership changes within the Vatican, and meet Barack Obama in what could be an awkward encounter.
The Pontiff, who will be 82 on April 16, will make his first trip as Pope to Africa in March, flying to Cameroon to take part in preparations for a meeting of African bishops. He then will travel to Angola to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the country’s evangelization.
The Pope can expect a joyful welcome on a continent where Catholicism is booming and large numbers are joining the Catholic priesthood. But Africa, which continues to be stricken by poverty and conflicts, is of great concern to the church, leading the Vatican to unofficially designate 2009 as a Year for Africa. As he did over Christmas, the Pope is likely to draw particular attention to conflict and hardships in Zimbabwe, Congo, and Somalia.
His visit also may reignite controversy over the church’s prohibition of condom use as a means to prevent HIV/AIDS. The Pope won’t change the church’s teaching on this issue, but instead is likely to point out why the church stands by its teaching, and that Catholic organizations provide around a quarter of the care AIDS victims receive worldwide
Attention will then turn to Benedict’s next historic trip: to the Holy Land. The Vatican hasn’t officially confirmed the visit, and if the fighting in Gaza continues, it is likely to be postponed. However, the Vatican says planning for the trip is continuing, and sources say it is being scheduled for May 8-15. It will include stops in Amman, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem. Papal biographer George Weigel says it probably will be the highlight of the Pope’s year.
Without doubt, the visit will be one of Benedict’s most delicate to date. Sources say the German pontiff is scheduled to meet members of the Palestinian Authority (though not Hamas) in Bethlehem, and visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. He will make many calls for peace in the region, and for solidarity with Christians in the Holy Land facing many hardships and emigrating in large numbers. The Vatican will be hoping the papal trip will also ease recent tensions with Israeli and Jewish leaders. Pope Pius XII’s record in saving Jews during World War Two remains a hotly contested issue among some Jewish leaders.
Away from the Pope’s trips, new papal literature is expected this year. Benedict’s long-awaited first social encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate” (“Love in Truth”), probably will be released in the first half of the year (pre-orders are being taken online at sites such as Amazon.com). The document, which is addressed to every Catholic, will offer a moral critique of the current financial crisis. It is expected to be fairly “green,” with an emphasis on responsible stewardship of creation, but always with an anthropocentric vision that puts human dignity and well-being, not nature, at the center of the issue.
The Pope, a voracious reader and accomplished author, may also publish the second volume of his book “Jesus of Nazareth.” The book, whose first volume was published in 2007, will offer his own analysis and theological insight into Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection.
This year will also see significant changes in several senior positions in the Vatican. At least three cardinals are expected to step down, having reached, or exceeded, the retiring age of 75. As these appointments are made, and other cardinals around the world retire, the need for a consistory (when the Pope formally appoints new cardinals) will become pressing. Observers believe it is most likely to take place in the fall.
The Pope also will be keen to ensure that hitherto significant progress continues in the Catholic Church’s relations with the Orthodox Church. A new Russian Orthodox Patriarch will be elected by June following the untimely death of Patriarch Alexei II late last year. Whoever wins could raise hopes of the first momentous meeting between a Pope and a Patriarch since the two churches split nearly a thousand years ago.
As for interesting papal visitors, Barack Obama’s in July will be the one to watch. The president-elect will be attending the G8 meeting on the Italian island of Maddalena and is expected to tie in a Vatican visit en route. In view of his previous record on abortion and other pro-life issues, his meeting with the Pontiff could be an awkward one.
But even if the two don’t meet, commentators say the new administration and the church are likely to come to blows. “If the Obama administration tries to remove conscience-clause protections for Catholic healthcare professionals and institutions in the United States, we could very well see a papal challenge to the new administration,” Weigel says. He believes such a challenge is likely “in any event” because of what the Obama administration will attempt in the field of “so-called ‘reproductive rights’” at the United Nations and elsewhere.
Still, that won’t stop Benedict XVI meeting Obama if the opportunity arises. One of this Pope’s strengths is his willingness to listen to all views, even those with which he disagrees. For Pope Benedict, an honest intellectual discussion trumps any fear of controversy. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if, as in previous years, this Pontiff captures headlines by provoking a hard-headed debate or two.
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