Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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April 22, 2007


Two puffs of smoke rose over the Vatican on April 19, 2005. The first black; the second white: a new pope had been elected! Joseph Ratzinger! What was the vision of the Church that the newly named Benedict XVI would undertake to impose on the Church? Would it be the vision he had shown as prefect of the Congregation of the Faith – the old inquisition? That of the hunter for doctrinal aberration as he perceived it? He had rebuked many theologians. By a letter to the Jesuit general in mid-March 2007, Ratzinger forced the removal of the editor of the magazine “America”, Father Tom Reese, SJ, with whom he had been jousting for years. Or as pope would he have a more pastoral vision, seeking to make the gospels and sacraments more readily available to the faithful? Or would his passion for doctrinal precision and authorative control trump the pastoral instincts.

Benedict’s vision of his Church can be clearly seen in his Response of March 13, 2007 to the 2005 World Synod of Bishops, in which he presents a scholarly theological and deeply devotional study of the Blessed Sacrament. He also addresses several policy issues related to the Eucharist. Many bishops, facing a shortage of priests in administering the sacraments, had petitioned to ordain married men. In response, Benedict forcefully confirmed mandatory celibacy for priests. Some bishops, especially in Australia, had found that communal Penance Services with general absolution had vastly increased participation in this sacrament, Benedict severely forbids this practice and insists on individual confession. He gives no theological grounding whatever for this restriction on the availability of this sacrament. Is it motivated simply by a passion for control over the individual? To emphasize who is in charge? Other bishops, including the Vatican’s Cardinal Walter Kaspar, have sought to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments. Benedict rejects this widely requested pastoral approach. He insists that to receive the sacraments, such couples must live as brother and sister, a solution neither widely applauded nor regarded as realistic.

In addition to these rejections of requests by many bishops, some of Benedict’s positive recommendations come as a surprise. He recommends a wider use of the Latin Mass and Gregorian chant and, quite startling, an increased practice of gaining indulgences for oneself and for the deceased!

Benedict XVI indicates in this latest document what winds will fill the sails of the barque of Peter under his rule and in what direction his hands will direct its rudder.