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Benedict XVI, pope of surprises

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After his first year, some commentators suggested that Pope Benedict XVI did not seem to have done very much, and that he was bound by tradition in a way that precluded surprises. No one's suggesting that now.

The holy father has broken a number of precedents, and not in predictable ways.

In last week's issue, we explained how Pope Benedict had reached out to Chinese Catholics who had opted for a government-controlled Patriotic Catholic Association during the persecution of the Church in China. Pope Benedict had to reach out in a careful way, in order to properly honor those Catholics who had stayed faithful to Rome throughout.

In this week's issue, we explain how Pope Benedict has reached out to Catholics who love the old Latin Mass. He has now allowed the Mass to be celebrated anywhere a congregation and priest decide they would prefer it.

The pope's outreach to Chinese Catholics, abrograting previous Vatican directives in China, may have seemed a progressive action. His outreach to "Tridentine" Mass Catholics reached back into the Church's past and may have seemed a traditionalist move. But the pope's book Jesus of Nazareth reveals that Pope Benedict is no progressivist, and no traditionalist, either.

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The book was unprecedented. The pope published it in April under his pre-papal name, insisting that it was not a magisterial work. No other pope in the church's long memory has done that.

In it, he speaks frankly about different camps of scriptural interpretation that led the church astray. But the scholars he embraces aren't necessarily the favorites of old-school Catholic thinkers, either.

The book is capable of surprising statements, when you consider they are coming from a pope, like when he talks of the disappointment some might feel that Christ offered the kingdom but delivered the church.

If the pope's position seems like an enigma, it needn't.

Pope Benedict's vision isn't one that longs to restore the glories of the church's past or one that is easily identifiable with one "camp" or another in the church's present. He knows that the past wasn't as glorious as we sometimes would like to remember, and that the church is greater than what any one camp might think.

Rather, these major actions of the holy father are all of a kind: They are all attempts to forge unity through love.

We often hear lip service given to unity. But usually, when we promote "unity" what we really want is for everyone to do things more or less the way we like them done. When unity requires us to overlook unfounded misgivings we might have, and when it requires us to give freer rein to those we might naturally oppose, we lose our enthusiasm for unity.

Pope Benedict has a richer, deeper commitment to unity.

He has taken bold, decisive action to welcome Chinese Catholics and Latin Mass Catholics back into the fold. His decision will entail some liturgical and bureaucratic difficulty in the short term, but will prepare the church in the best way for its future by maximizing the channels through which it can deliver the sacraments to souls.

And the key to the drive for unity behind the pope is in his book Jesus of Nazareth. We can fall into the trap of thinking that the church is a giant institution that regulates religious devotion. If we think of the church that way, then the holy father's efforts at unity can seem like more trouble than they are worth.

But Pope Benedict thinks of the church as the body of Christ. His efforts at unity are efforts to preserve the integrity of that body - and to ensure that the church acts as the instrument of Christ's love in the world.

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If the divine son of God can become an infant, then a child, then a victim for our sakes, certainly we can reach out to Catholics disaffected by the events of the last century to extend his action to all.

God is always full of surprises. It shouldn't surprise us that the "humble worker in his vineyard" has some too.


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