Pope Benedict XVI: What’s in a name?

HERE'S THE SCORE - Teodoro C. Benigno -
Controversy, that’s what. If Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had chosen to be named Pope John Paul III after his predecessor instead of Pope Benedict, today’s stinging criticism would have been muted and the world’s Roman Catholic faithful would not have been polarized and stricken this early. As it is the gladdening roar that greeted the election of Pope Benedict (Habemus Papam!) lapsed early into solemnity. Then came the barbs, the asides, the rebukes that as a Pope, he would be an ultra-conservative, bellowing no, no, no to homosexuality, to ordaining women, abortion, divorce, euthanasia and lifting the celibacy requirement for priests.

Instead, the German prelate chose the name Benedict, the last Benedict being Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922).

No Benedict was ever a great pope. The last in the line was an absolute mediocrity, who sought neutrality in the Second World War and got bumped off by both sides as a nosey ne’er do well, and was himself neutralized. The others in the line were absolute mediocrities, some a shame to the papacy. The pontificate of Benedict IX was submerged in sleaze and scandal and he died as a penitent at the monastery of Grottaferrata. So why the name Benedict? We’ll never know unless Cardinal Ratzinger sought to resurrect the name, and project his papacy as the greatest in another line.

And yet, in his maiden speech, Pope Benedict XVI pledged to work to unify Christians, reach out to other religions and made clear he would closely follow the trajectory of his predecessor Pope John Paul II. Can he? Will he? Would he be the papal equivalent of a Winston Churchill whose stentorian voice united Europe and the West, and fired rockets at the Reichstag, and spun the otherwise idiotically hinged jaw of Adolph Hitler?

Only time will tell – six months perhaps, a year or two – if Pope Benedict XVI will stick to the doctrines of the Church or adjust to a swirling, searching, fast-changing world whose "relativism" he has openly condemned. Nothing seems to be able to move him on the issue of homosexuality which he had branded as "intrinsically evil." Or the celibacy of priests.

The Philippines’ gay community, one of largest, sultriest, and openly deviant in the world, must be dismayed. The Philippines has the largest body of Catholics in Asia and boasts of three cardinals, was once considered by Pope Paul II as potentially Asia’s evangelist of the Catholic gospel.

As former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith since 1981 and a close aide of John Paul, the German pope comes at a time when the challenges to the Roman faith have virtually emptied European churches, substantially reduced membership in other Churches. In the United States, deep disenchantment with the Church spewed forth over decades of sex scandals where priests including bishops preyed upon and abused young boys.

The challenges are:

1. The continuing emergence of Asia (coupling China and India) as the world’s economic superpower, replacing America and Britain. The US will presumably share this status before it declines late in the 21st century or even earlier. Britain held it in the 19th century.

2. The rivalry of Islam, or better still the warrior forces of Islam which seek to continually throw back the Church of St. Peter and in so doing, hack at its social, economic and political battlements not to mention the Vatican’s hold on the faith of those in power.

3. Western Europe, once the formidable daughter of the Roman Church, is beginning to look at Asia, lured by its vast markets and in the process loosening its traditional alliance with America, the New World paring its moorings with the Old World.

4. Where once upon a time, Romano civitas ergo sum (I am a Roman citizen was the supreme password in much of the universe), it could presumably be replaced by Asianus civitas ergo sum. Would St. Peter’s Church’s heraldry and majesty by then pale in comparison?

5. As history’s basin of civilization, its cult, spills from the Occident to the Orient, what role would religion play? Whose god or gods would prevail? Or, by that time, would ecumenism have succeeded, Pope John XXIII’s dream that all rivers will eventually pour into one ocean? Just one supreme faith, just one supreme God? Will this ever happen? When? Or is this an impossible dream?

Pope John Paul II somehow continued the path laid by Pope John XXIII by praying at an Israeli synagogue and doing the same at a Muslim mosque. Throughout his pontificate, John Paul was a tough traditionalist. But along the way, he became a humanist, a lover of children, visiting 129 countries with a walking cane and a popemobile, attracting the biggest throngs in history, looking more of a child as he became older.

He carried his physical pain with dignity, his Parkinson’s disease, his hobbled back and fractured thigh. This is what drew millions to him, a simple man, a suffering man, who virtually wept upon seeing poverty almost all over the world.

"Human history is a history of civilizations."

This is how Prof. Samuel Huntington started his epic, "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the Old Order". Along the way, he digs a butcher’s knife into the "widespread and parochial conceit that the European civilization of the West is now the universal civilization of the world."

Also somewhere along the way, he states "If at some point in the distant future China displaces the West as the dominant civilization in the world, English will give way to Mandarin as the world’s lingua franca." At one time it was Latin with the Roman Church at the steeple.

Since, according to Huntington, "religion is perhaps the central force that motivates and mobilizes people," many suggest that "increased interaction among peoples – trade, investment, tourism, media, electronic communication may be generating a world culture."

How do all these conjugate with what happened in Rome and the Vatican recently? Nothing of the kind ever dazzled and enchanted humanity, and we all had the feeling the papacy, and only the papacy, had such power to light up our lives.

And yet as I go back to my history books, the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, his death and his succession, all that pomp, all that heraldry, all that projection of spiritual power will simply diminish to a twinkle of an eye as the world marches with swifting events that will change its shape and complexion.

The generation I belong to is about to vanish. And yet, despite all the signs, it is hard to believe the core of world events is moving from West to East. During all my life, they moved from East to West, and they shaped my life, my Christianity, my values. I still cross myself before every meal, when there is an earthquake, when I pass by a Church.

I have said it many times before, and yet even as I say it each time, I cannot still fully believe our giant of a northern neighbor up there – China – will one day simply suck us in, and everything associated before with Las Yslas Filipinas, particularly the outriggers of its Christianity, will simply vanish like the light of a candle. Are we to believe that?

In this temporal world, we were attracted to Pope John Paul II as to a lodestar, as to a swarm of fireflies lighting up the landscape, as to a giant fireball whooshing across space. I suppose I will go to my grave with those images however ephemeral they might be.

And so we end this series of columns on the pontificate, with sadness and some regrets because as a writer, I have been moved by few extraordinary men. I could say the same for Nelson Mandela. Yes to a substantial extent by Ninoy Aquino.

But maybe, we have to go back to historical perspective.

Prof. Huntington sets pen to paper with little fires coming up all around, elegiac in their mellow intensity, reminding us what civilization is all about, and he says in eloquent closure:

"As the civilization evolved, it becomes more settled and develops the techniques and skills that make it more Civilized, its ‘golden age’ with a flowering of morality, art, literature and philosophy, technology, and martial, economic and political competence. As it goes into decay as a civilization, its level of Civilization also declines until it disappears under the onslaught of a different surging civilization with a lower level of Civilization."

Ah, Giovanni Paulo, what Civilization will ever forget you?











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