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The Art of Congratulating the Pope

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 03, 2005

Nearly every prominent religious leader and organization in the world issued statements on the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. While about half of these statements properly express pleasure and congratulations, along with a promise of prayers, the other half seek in subtle ways to teach the Pope his business before he can bungle the job. This makes for an interesting study in congratulatory politics.

Praising What You Want

Perhaps the most common technique in attempting to influence the Holy Father was praising him in advance for the things the writer hoped he would be or do. Thus Bishop Skylstad, President of the USCCB, immediately affirmed that he had always found Cardinal Ratzinger “to be very open and pastoral, with a listening ear, especially sensitive to the situation of the church in this country.” Of course this may have also been intended to reassure those who regard the former head of the CDF as John Paul II’s bull dog. In any case, it sends a message about how the Pope should act if he wants to get along with Catholics in the United States.

Am I too cynical? A much more pointed example of this type came from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which has had an axe to grind against Catholic doctrine since before Sr. Theresa Kane challenged Pope John Paul II on the ordination of women during his first visit to the United States. The LCWR statement looks forward with loaded language to working with Pope Benedict XVI "to build a church that is inclusive of the gifts and wisdom of all its members.”

Explaining Benedict XVI’s Pontificate

Another technique used was the effort to coopt the pontificate by explaining what Benedict XVI's reign will be like. This was particularly striking in the statement issued by Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston. Fiorenza had the opportunity to work with Ratzinger several times a year while serving as vice president and president of the USCCB. He begins his statement by emphasizing these personal connections.

Having established his bona fides, he immediately asserts “there is no doubt that” the pope “will continue to foster ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.” He will also “be an apostle for peace and an ardent defender of the rights of the poor to a just share of the resources of the world.” Archbishop Fiorenza admits that he is “not sure” if Benedict XVI “will travel as much as Pope John Paul II, but he will be an evangelist to the world, teaching and preaching Jesus Christ.” It is nice to know so early, and with so little effort, the distinguishing marks of this pontificate.

Instructing the Pope

It was to be expected, of course, that many groups would try to use their statements to call attention to their particular concerns, but the lengths to which some went to instruct the Pope seem excessive. For example, the Anti-Defamation League understandably issued its statement “from the Jewish perspective”, expressing relief that Ratzinger’s European background gave him a certain sensitivity to the “20th-century experience of European Jewry”. But was it really necessary to add that, “though as a teenager he was a member of the Hitler Youth, all his life Cardinal Ratzinger has atoned for the fact.” (This is said of a man who at 17 was already looking his commander in the eye and telling him he wanted to be a priest.)

But the worst case I have seen is the misguided effort of Voice of the Faithful to bully the Pope on “shared responsibility” (read shared authority). VOF was organized by a group of dissident Catholics to use the sexual abuse scandal to force the Church to make fundamental concessions in doctrine and governance. Pressing Benedict XVI to meet with an international delegation of abuse survivors “as soon as possible”, VOF wastes no time in attending to its pet issue: “We are extremely concerned about the culture of secrecy within the church that precludes fostering…shared responsibility. We hope that we can work with you, and with all the bishops, to make accountability for bishops, clergy and for lay Catholics a part of the fabric of the Catholic Church.”

Good Examples

Really, more leaders and organizations should have followed the excellent example provided by those who are content to let the Pope be the Pope. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver stated that the election of Cardinal Ratzinger would not be surprising “to anyone who has lived the Catholic faith seriously over the last two decades” and affirmed that “Pope Benedict XVI will pastor the people of God with dedication and love. He will be a great Holy Father to us all.” This is not the same as defining his pontificate: it is a vote of confidence.

But my favorite came from Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, whose statement was clearly sent directly to the Pope himself: “The Diocese of Tucson rejoices with the universal church in your selection as Holy Father. We offer you our loyalty and promise you our prayers.” Bishop Kicanas praised Cardinal Ratzinger’s record as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and expressed certainty that Benedict XVI “will shepherd the universal church with that same zeal and determination.” He promised that all of his diocese’s 75 parishes, 28 schools and other Catholic institutions “will remember you daily in our prayers.”

Finally, Bishop Kicanas closed with an invitation: “The Diocese of Tucson would be ecstatic to welcome you to our community of southern Arizona to enjoy some great Mexican food, to see firsthand the beauty of the desert in bloom, to meet a vibrant church in which you would be very proud.” This is the way Catholics ought to congratulate Benedict XVI on his election to the See of Peter. There is no politics here, no thinly veiled agenda, but simply joy in the presence of the Vicar of Christ.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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