When the Pontifical Council for Culture held a plenary assembly on the subject of “Emerging Youth Culture” at the Vatican from February 6 – 9 this year, I was one of those in attendance.
We were offered the chance of a papal audience, and Pope Benedict was vigorous as he walked into the room that day. At the time, I recalled the image of Blessed John Paul II in a wheelchair some 10 years prior and counted it a blessing that the current pontiff was in good health.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I returned to Japan to the news that the Holy Father was stepping down at the end of February.
Throughout the world, the news prompted a media field day, both among Christians and even in the secular press. Reports on the most likely candidates for the papacy clamor for attention, and we who live in far-away countries really haven’t a clue about who it might be.
But if I could be forgiven for voicing my own hopes, I must say that a non-European pope sounds appealing. It wasn’t so long ago that a pope from Poland, somewhat farther from Rome than usual, gave the Church a whole new image.
In Japan, where not many people are Catholic, the coverage has been rather muted, and in fact was totally overshadowed by the news of North Korea’s nuclear test the next day. Even so, columns in newspapers discussed who the next pope might be, how the election would take place, and so forth. It’s clear that even here there is a heightened sense of interest.
When Pope Benedict rose to the Chair of St Peter, one of the pressing issues of the day was how to deal with China.
Blessed John Paul II before him had been a key player in bringing down the Iron Curtain, so the Chinese government was understandably on guard; one might think they expected some antagonism from his successor.
It was a landmark, then, when shortly after his election Pope Benedict issued a letter to the faithful in China which laid out a path toward solving the problems facing the Church there.
Although it criticized the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, it was the first official document that publicly confirmed the Vatican’s recognition of the bishops that had been installed by the Chinese government.
Sadly, progress has since stalled. Chinese officials, taking swift advantage of the weakness of the Vatican’s position, stepped up their oppression of the Church by confining Monsignor Thaddeus Ma Daqin, auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, despite his having been ordained with the blessing of both the Vatican and the government, and forcing bishops faithful to Rome to participate in the unlawful ordination of a bishop.
In addition, the Chinese leadership has been shaken up recently as well, making the present situation extraordinarily delicate. The next pope will be faced with the ongoing challenge of improving relations with China.
Improving relations with Islam was also a major difficulty facing Pope Benedict. The leaders of many Muslim nations attended Blessed John Paul II’s funeral and spoke in his memory. This was, no doubt, because the departed pontiff had apologized for the historical aggressions of the crusaders, demonstrated concern for the problem of Palestine, and worked to avoid war in Iraq.
Benedict earned some animosity for some unfortunate statements during a lecture in Germany, but it seems that his visits to mosques and dialogue with Muslim personages throughout the world went a remarkable way toward mending the situation.
On the other hand, the tumult of the Arab Spring, which was hailed as a move toward democracy, has ushered in nothing less than a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, as extremists have seized the reins of power and are forcing Christianity into exile.
When you consider how Catholic countries tried to sweep Islamic influence from the Iberian Peninsula by military force as late as the 15th century, there are admittedly many points in Christian history worthy of reflection; but at any rate the new pope will have to work even harder to engage in dialogue with Islam.
Just the other day, during the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council on Culture, a young female Muslim activist from Indonesia gave a talk.
At the time of the last conclave, in a comment on my thoughts on the papacy for the Yomiuri newspaper, I expressed hope for “cultural diversity and a deep regard for regional character.
Co-existence and symbiosis built on the interplay of many races, nations, and cultures is the message of Christianity.
During the reign of Blessed John Paul II, the downside of the radiance of the Holy Father’s own activities was, it has been charged, a diminished respect for cultural diversity and a step backwards toward centralized power in the Church. There was no major progress made on this front under Pope Benedict.
I could perhaps point to the establishment of the Ordinariate for Anglicans entering the Catholic Church who wish to retain their liturgies and practices. Indeed, throughout history, the Catholic Church has been extremely tolerant when accepting its formerly estranged brethren back into the fold.
Some of the Churches of the East, with differing theologies, liturgies, cultures, and traditions, entered into full communion with the Bishop of Rome without being required to give these things up, and they retained some autonomy even after their reincorporation. I feel that this tolerance should be extended also to the members of the Latin Church, including Japan.
Last year was the 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council, and Pope Benedict marked the occasion by proclaiming a “Year of Faith” beginning October 2012. There must be some regret that he has had to step down in the middle of it.
I was a college freshman when Vatican II began, and although I had some sense of the necessity for change in the Catholic Church, I couldn’t imagine it ever actually happening. But I remember a priest who spoke to us students at the time. “You might not think that a meeting of 2000 white-haired men will make any difference, but you don’t understand how the wind of the Holy Spirit works.”
Sure enough, that wind grew into a tempest of change that swept across the Catholic Church, and the news from Rome brought us to tears of both joy and lamentation.
The Second Vatican Council came at a time when the Church was entering what might be called the ‘post-Constantine’ era. Before Constantine became the sole Roman emperor in 325, he was one of two co-emperors of Rome; in 313, as the ruler of the western half of the Empire, he met at Milan with Licinius, emperor of the East, and the two officially recognized Christianity and other religions in a famous edict.
Christianity soon became the official religion of the empire and grew into the core of the European identity.
This was the Constantinian status quo, and by a strange coincidence, this year is the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan.
Vatican II came as a warning that there was no room left for complacency in the Constantinian image of Europe as a set of Christian nations. When Pope Benedict created the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization in 2010, it was supremely timely — not to say overdue.
Pope Benedict is an accomplished theologian, and in his general audiences the catecheses he gave offered a hint at a man’s deep learning. But some criticize him for placing too much weight on Church traditions.
Looking back at history, we find several instances in which popes especially focused on tradition have been succeeded by popes with a zeal for reform.
Pius XII was followed by John XXIII, and Pius IX was followed by Leo XIII. In each case the new pope stayed on his predecessor’s course to a certain extent, but also blazed new trails of reform.
There will be great expectations for the successor of Pope Benedict XVI.
Yoshio Oyanagi, a Professor at Kobe University and a consultor of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture, is a member of the UCA News Board of Directors