One Year of Pope Benedict XVI Ratzinger's Quiet Non-Revolution

A year into his papacy and the radical shift many had expected when Pope Benedict XVI became pope last spring has yet to arrive. Instead, he has chosen discretion.


Pope Benedict XVI was elected one year ago Wednesday.
AP

Pope Benedict XVI was elected one year ago Wednesday.

The newest entrance to the Vatican is 3.7 meters (12 feet) wide and 5 meters (16.4 feet) tall. It's a four-paneled bronze gate that looks like a row of book spines, and it's the German pope's first construction project. It looks almost as though one must go through the Word to get to the Church -- or at least into its underground parking garage.

The papal palace is empty on this Monday morning. Outside, on the other side of the Leonine Wall, the polling stations assembling votes in the Italian general election are about to close. The only sound inside is the ticking of a clock, surrounded by the silent turmoil of the allegorical frescoes covering walls and ceilings. "The one with the anchor around his neck is St. Clement," says the guardsman in the silence. Then he points to an elevator and says: "Pius XII." The clock continues to tick away.

The elderly prelate, who prefers to remain anonymous, sits in one of the palace's damask-lined offices and says that he remembers the days when Joseph Ratzinger was still making headlines as a pale "grand inquisitor." "There is a difference," he says, speaking almost completely accent-free German, "as to whether you play defensively with a strong team to back you up, or play a more individual game. He hasn't changed, but now he can show a side of himself that wasn't needed in the past."

One year ago when Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the papacy, both friend and foe expected different things from the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A shift would affect the entire church state. But when Pope Benedict XVI presented his encyclical, it was no reactionary manifesto, but a declaration of love: "Deus caritas est."

The German pope, once known in Italy by his German nickname, the Panzerkardinal, or "battle tank cardinal," spoke of the God-given gift of eros, of love and of good deeds, and managed to do so without mentioning the evils of contraception. The crusader against liberation theology left it up to the Italian bishops to handle the day to day and instead immersed himself in the psalms.

Everything is different, and yet nothing has changed. Every Wednesday, at 10:30 a.m. sharp, the pope gives a lecture. His topics are the same as those he addressed during his days in Tübingen. But today his lectures are open-air events attended by crowds numbering in the thousands and growing by the week.

It's difficult to love a German pope, but the Romans like him. Perhaps especially for the amount of attention he clearly devotes to his appearance. As born Catholics, Italians know full well that one's appearance and essence are inseparable. No detail is accidental. A pope's accessories say as much about the man as his writings. Don't they?

The prelate molds his face into an indulgent expression. He would put it differently, he says: "Small signs often have great significance. At least for those who see clearly. Watch out for such signs; they exist."

A QUESTION OF STYLE

One of the first to discover this pope's intolerance for breaches in etiquette was Massimiliano Gammarelli. The Gammarelli family has been tailoring for the Vatican since 1793. But Benedict XVI decided to change papal tailors and went to Euroclero, across the street from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Sant'Ufficio. The pope was apparently irritated over having to give his first audience wearing a cassock too short to cover his silk stockings.

"I would call it a new style," says Notker Wolf, who plays electric guitar in a Christian rock band and is Abbot Primate of the Order of St. Benedict. The windows of his office on Aventine Hill look out on the city of Rome. "Benedict is cautious with his health. He gives few audiences and he protects himself. He is wise enough to tell people not to trouble him with unnecessary things."

Ever since April 19, 2005, the date of Pope Benedict's election, Ratzinger has been treated in the curia -- often something of a hotbed of intrigue -- with distanced and amazed admiration, says Wolf. It's a demeanor that Italians often reserve for Germans, but it shouldn't be confused with affection. "I heard them saying: Finally we have a German again. He'll clean things up," Wolf reports.

But the new pope took his time. The first nine months of his papacy passed without any fundamental personnel decisions or statements of position. It was almost as if the infallible ex cathedra wanted to take a few steps back and carefully study the machinery. "Many were frustrated that so little actually happened, but many were also pleased." Benedictine monk Wolf cheerily blows his nose. Since February, he says, things have begun speeding up. The reform of the curia has been decided. The encyclical has been published, and one and a half million copies have already been sold. The number of members of the papal council was reduced, a high-ranking member of the curia was sent to Egypt as Nuntius, and 15 new cardinals were appointed, including -- to the horror of the papal bureaucracy -- only three veterans from the curia.

"Reform," says Ratzinger, "consists in the removal of the unnecessary."

COATS OF ARMS AND RENUNCIATION

Vatican chief herald and Tuscan nobleman Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo received a call only two days after the conclave which elected Ratzinger to the papacy. "The Holy Father and I discussed the elements of his personal coat of arms. The shell of St. Augustine, the moor's head, the bear and the bowl of St. Peter -- all were to be expected. But he also insisted on an innovation."

Benedict wanted the "tiara" -- the triple-layer papal crown in the coat of arms -- replaced by a mitre, the headwear worn by bishops, specifically the mitre he owns and that Paul VI wore on December 7, 1965, when he proclaimed the last reforms decreed by the Vatican II council.

It's a heraldic shift that points to an agenda. The three rings of the tiara originally represented the pope's universal claim to power, as "father of princes and kings, ruler of the world and representative of Christ on earth." Benedict wanted it one size smaller, as a sign of good will toward the Orthodox Church. Indeed, this pope seems to be seeking out dialogue with the East. As an icebreaker, he sent Cardinal Walter Kasper -- who is not only head of the papal committee responsible for relations with Judaism, but who also helps look after the Church in the Orient -- to Moscow as his personal representative.

Benedict's relationship with China is also changing. "We are experiencing a thaw in relations," says a church diplomat who travels to Beijing on a regular basis. "The government isn't afraid of the current pope. It was a different story with his predecessor. After all, he brought down Eastern Europe."

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