The Rule of Benedictby David Gibson
There was no neutral response to the announcement that the "enforcer"—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—had been elected Benedict XVI, the next pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Conservatives saw it as the final triumph of their agenda. Liberals were aghast. Everyone else wondered what to expect. Award-winning religion journalist David Gibson explores the "war
There was no neutral response to the announcement that the "enforcer"—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—had been elected Benedict XVI, the next pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Conservatives saw it as the final triumph of their agenda. Liberals were aghast. Everyone else wondered what to expect. Award-winning religion journalist David Gibson explores the "war of ideas" that will be a defining feature of this new papacy.
Gibson persuasively argues that by tackling the modern world head-on Benedict XVI is gambling that he can make traditional, orthodox Catholicism the savior of contemporary society. But if the elderly Benedict fails in his battle with modernity, will Catholicism wind up as a "smaller-but-purer church"—the new kind of fortress Catholicism that some conservatives want? Such fears haunt millions of American Catholics pressing for change. Gibson points to the early warning signs of a papacy hyperfocused on "right belief" and shows how the key decisions of this surprising papacy will profoundly impact the future of Catholicism.
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The Rule of Benedict
Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World
By David Gibson
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
The Shadow of the Pontiff
High above St. Peter's Square, inside the warren of apartments that make up the imposing complex of the Apostolic Palace, the old pope sat slumped in a wheelchair as aides tried to pretend they weren't completely preoccupied with his every move. Over the previous weeks, as the silver jubilee of this historic pontificate approached, Parkinson's disease, which had afflicted John Paul II for years, was also advancing, just as inexorably. The question seemed to be which would arrive first, the anniversary or the angel of death.
As often happens in such cases, the affliction that was steadily paralyzing synapses in the pontiff's brain passed through phases, with good days and bad. Sometimes the pope looked to be on the edge of death, to the point that newsrooms hit the panic button and started mobilizing for the funeral. At other times, and for long stretches, he would rally and become animated to such a degree that one thought he might go on forever. Vatican insiders said that the swings were due to changes in his medications. Some suggested that John Paul disliked taking them because they dulled his famously agile mind and made him too sleepy to engage the crowds that energized him. So for major events, such as the jubilee ofhis election, he would cut back on the pills. Others said the pope's doctors had to periodically flush the powerful drugs out of his system so they would not harm his organs.
In those unmedicated times, the pope's death seemed imminent. As his health worsened, the circle around him grew tighter, and even officials who had once enjoyed regular access to the pope were cut off. Information became speculation. At one point, the talk around the Vatican was that John Paul was being given some kind of mixture that included a cocaine-like stimulant to keep him going. The rumor had some basis in history. A nineteenth-century pope, Leo XIII, whose papacy John Paul would eventually surpass, enjoyed a sparkling red wine laced with opium, called Vin Mariani, which kept him going until the ripe age of ninety-three. Leo liked it so much he endorsed the tonic in ads; it was also favored by Queen Victoria and President McKinley.
In any case, medical care was never the Vatican's forte. The quack remedies of Pius XII's personal physician may have hastened his death in 1958, and the mysterious sudden death of John Paul I in 1978 after just thirty-three days as pope instilled no great confidence in the Holy See's health care system.
Whatever the rumors, however, it was clear that as the twenty-fifth anniversary of his election approached, on October 16, 2003, John Paul II was struggling just to get through each day alive. The pontiff who considered an acting career as a young man could barely make himself understood, his voice a guttering flame, his face a frozen mask. John Paul struggled for breath and winced with pain, as even the slightest movement aggravated the arthritis that afflicted his hips and knees without respite.
Like worried offspring, the prelates hovering about the Holy Father struggled for words of comfort and produced only the usual non sequiturs that come to even the most well-intentioned at such times.
Then suddenly, the old man himself spoke, stirring from beneath the cope of senescence and blurting out, "Non omnis moriar."
The phrase sounded like some stray fragment from the old Latin Mass, a Tridentine reverie plucked from the memory of a long-ago Polish seminarian casting back to the beginning of his religious life as he faced the twilight of his earthly days. Instead, the pope's words were those of Horace, the pagan poet from a Rome of two millennia before John Paul, from the odes that Karol Wojtyla, a bright young student from Krakow, had memorized ages earlier on his way to earning his school's Latin prize.
Non omnis moriar (I shall not wholly die).1
In the mouth of the dying pope, the ancient words may have been a declaration of the Chris-tian faith in the Resurrection that triumphed over the pagan world. Or perhaps they were simply an effort to ease the concern of those around him. Then again, Horace's poem, read in its entirety, also alludes to a more temporal reality of which the pope, himself a poet of no small renown, was undoubtedly aware:
I have achieved a monument more lasting
than bronze and loftier than the pyramids of kings,
which neither gnawing rain nor blustering wind
may destroy, nor innumerable series of years,
nor the passage of ages. I shall not wholly die,
a large part of me will escape Libitina, the goddess of Death:
while Pontiff and Vestal shall climb the Capitol Hill,
I shall be renewed and flourish in further praise.2
Indeed, whatever John Paul intended by his muttered recitation, nothing could state more clearly the imposing legacy of his quarter-century on the Throne of St. Peter, nor the daunting task facing the man who would become his successor. Only 3 other popes in history--out of 264--reigned longer than John Paul, one of them St. Peter himself. For years, Catholics had acclaimed him as John Paul the Great, granting him an honorific that history has conferred on just three other pontiffs, all of whom lived in the fifth and sixth centuries and gained renown by preserving Rome from barbarian invaders. One of his many biographers, Jonathan Kwitny, called John Paul the "Man of the Century." As the pope passed his silver jubilee, many would have extended the time frame to the past millennium.
With John Paul II, it seemed that the Fates, out of folly or perhaps from boredom with the routine of elderly Italian men shuffling through the Petrine office, had decided to shake up the Catholic Church at the end of the second millennium and pump some life into the wheezing Great Man theory of history. In Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of . . .
Excerpted from The Rule of Benedict
by David Gibson
Copyright © 2006 by David Gibson.
Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
David Gibson is an award-winning religion writer and a committed lay Catholic. He writes about Catholicism for various newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Boston magazine, Fortune, Commonweal, and America. He was the religion writer for the The Star-Ledger of New Jersey. Gibson has worked in Rome for Vatican Radio and traveled frequently with Pope John Paul II. He has co-written several recent documentaries on Christianity for CNN.
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