erasing clouds

Book Review: John L. Allen's The Rise of Benedict XVI: The Inside Story of How the Pope was Elected and What It Means for the World

by anna battista

The first week of April 2005 was a very long week, especially for many Italians. Every day, at every hour and on every TV channel, there would be a journalist reporting from St. Peter’s Square, Rome. The numbers of people who were crowding the Italian capital, the long queues to say a prayer and the last goodbye to John Paul II, the people fainting under an unexpectedly hot April sun: these were the main subjects of the reports coming from Rome. The death of a Pontiff was swiftly turned into a media whirl, almost as a tribute to a Pope who had been a strong media figure.

Soon the time came to speculate on the follower: would they choose a ‘surprise’ Pope, perhaps a Latin American or an Asian man? An Italian or a foreigner? Progressive or conservative? Cardinal Martini? Or perhaps Cardinal Ratzinger? The ‘Papa Lotto’ was officially opened. Some wished for a rigorous man, many others for a Pope who would be open to the needs of the many communities that form the Church all over the world, especially to the needs of the poorest countries; a Pope keen on answering those awkward questions such as the use of condoms, the battle against Aids, the role of women and of homosexuals in the Church.

The Conclave opened: throughout the centuries, this rite has fascinated many writers, from Dante to Stendhal to Giuseppe Gioachino Belli. Even nowadays the Conclave catches people’s imagination with its rituals, secrets and mysteries. This time it didn’t last too long and in less than two days, the smoke turned from a pale grey to a dirty white, the bells rang and people started clapping, staring at the balcony from which the name of the new Pope was going to be announced. Happiness, worries, tension, a gamut of expressions could be seen on the faces of those waiting who must have understood the identity of the man who had been elected as soon as Chilean Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez proclaimed in Latin “Habemus Papam!” followed by the name “Iosephus”. So, yes, Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, for the joy and pain of many.

John L. Allen’s book The Rise of Benedict XVI, starts with the death of John Paul II and analyses the events that followed it and that resulted in Cardinal Ratzinger’s election to papacy. Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and a Vatican analyst for CNN and National Public Radio, sets out to answer the questions that have risen since the election of Benedict XVI, by tracing a profile of Cardinal Ratzinger. Born in Bavaria, Germany, on 16 April 1927, Ratzinger, served briefly with the Hitler Youth and in a German army anti-aircraft unit, though he defended himself by claiming that he could not have avoided military service in the circumstances. He became a famous theologian and was archbishop of Munich for a short period of time. In 1981 he was made Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the institution that was once known as the Inquisition. It was while in this role that Cardinal Ratzinger condemned the liberation theologians, censored and excommunicated many while proclaiming the Catholic Church as the one and only truth and standing firm for Catholic orthodoxy.

Once Pope John Paul II's chief assistant, Benedict XVI represents the continuity, the man who will safeguard the legacy of the previous Pope and cement doctrinal orthodoxy. There is only one problem: critics argue that the Church needed a Pope with less media interference and more direct participation; a Pope who could communicate to young people and not only enthusiasm them; a Pontiff ready to love more and condemn less. For many, Ratzinger represents the denial of these hopes. Yet, Allen states that Benedict XVI’s papacy “promises to be the stuff of high drama. It will be driven by deep ideas, fuelled by a sense of limited time and much work to do, and, perhaps, scarred by conflict inside the Church and misunderstanding without…anyone who understands this man must intuit that there are days of great adventure, and potentially deep angst, ahead.” To prove his theory, Allen lists the challenges and the issues that this Pontiff will have to face and take into consideration and concludes stating that this will be a pontificate with many “surprises in store”.

Sceptics can just hope Allen’s predictions and expectations will become true and that, under the weight of his responsibilities, Benedict XVI might ‘convert’, becoming the Pope of optimism, open-mindedness and liberation.


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