Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the papacy three days after his 78th birthday on 19 April 2005, taking the name Benedict XVI. His unenviable task was to follow the 26 year pontificate of the Polish pontiff, John Paul II. The elderly cardinal was preparing for his retirement before he was thrust into the limelight. Given his age, many presumed the pontificate would be brief. Perhaps a caretaker pope until a suitable candidate could be found from the lively churches of Asia, Latin America or Africa?
Benedict has confounded observers. Critics point to his slow reaction to important issues such as clerical child abuse. His supporters cite his theological discourses and efforts to heal Jewish and Muslim sensibilities. Yet neither view is entirely accurate. While Benedict was not proactive in healing the victims of clerical child abuse, he was forced into a reactive role which led to vital improvements and the reporting of all perpetrators to civil authorities. His outreach to Jews and Muslims was marred by approval of the beatification of Pius XII and a potentially explosive quotation from a 14th century writer which deeply offended many Muslims in 2006. At the same time, the German pontiff seeks to persuade by reason rather than dictates favoured by some of his predecessors.
This new biography, marking the first five years of Benedicts tenure, show how the unfolding pontificate has been one of light and shades and of several surprises. As leader of the worlds 1.24 billion Catholics, Benedicts papacy continues to play an important role in the religious sphere as well as on the world political stage. The reader is given a comprehensive pen portrait of the Bavarian pope whose pontificate has been anything but predictable.
Fr Michael Collins was born in 1936 and ordained in Rome in 1960. He worked in the Diocese of Derry for fifty years, spending eighteen years in charge of the Bogside parish of Longtower during The Troubles. He is now retired, but is a frequent broadcaster - contributing over 100 pieces for Radio Ulster’s Though for the Day programme, as well as appearing on Radio 4 and World Service. He has a passion for photography, and his book of archive photographs, Travellers in Time and Eternity was published in 2013
Fr Michael Collins is something of an expert on Rome and the Vatican. He pursued postgraduate studies at the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology in Rome. He has written on the papacy (The Fishermans Net) and covered the funeral of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI for numerous media organisations, including CNN, Sky International, BBC, Italian state TV and RT?ë.
Pope Benedict: XVI The First Five Years is an excellent and totally fascinating study of the present Pope. It begins with Joseph Ratzingers early life in southern Germany and goes on to his seminary days, the war and then considers the various stages on the journey towards the papacy and the first five years of that papacy.
Michael Collins writes: It proved difficult to whittle down the enormous work load of the Pope and make it in some way readable. This is my best attempt, and I admit that, having read many of his speeches and examined his daily routine, I greatly admire his dedication and discipline. Hopefully this book will allow you judge for yourselves the life and pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.
Benedict XVI has not the dramatic, charismatic personality of his predecessor, but he is clearly a good listener and a gentle, shy man with a superb mind. Scott Hahn said of him: Benedicts biblical theology is a thing of great beauty and power. It reveals a man of striking erudition, but also a man of deep prayer.
Unlike John Paul II, Benedict does not willingly enter into political controversies. Indeed, Michael Collins makes this point when discussing Benedicts visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territory. As he prayed at the Western Wall of the Second Temple, the Pope avoided political comment, and reserved his prayer for peace between Jews, Christians and Muslims. Avoidance of critical issues marked a difference between John Paul II and Benedict. Whereas the former waded into political issues, Benedict avoided unnecessary conflict and appealed to the forces of reason and international assistance for resolution.
When he was elected Pope the media continued to paint a dark picture of a stern, repressive conservative who would stifle all forms of dissent. The media called him Gods Rottweiler and the Panzer Cardinal!
The reality is somewhat different. Shortly after becoming Pope he invited Hans Kung to visit him at Castelgandolfo. The meeting lasted four hours and the Pope and his guest dined together. After the meeting Kung adopted a somewhat complimentary and favourable tone towards Pope Benedict, calling on people to give him a chance.
When the Pope travelled to Malta and spoke about the sexual abuse scandals he met some of the victims of abuse. He has expressed his sorrow and outrage at this abuse on many occasions. During a youth rally the Pope listened to five young Maltese address the concerns of their peers.
Fr Collins quotes one of the young speakers: The first young man who spoke eloquently expressed the dilemma for many young people who want to remain Catholic but feel the weight of the challenge. óóI wish to speak on behalf of those young people who, like me, feel they are on the outskirts of the Church.
We are the ones who do not fit comfortably into stereotyped roles. This is due to various factors, among them: either because we have experienced substance abuse; or because we are experiencing the misfortune of broken or dysfunctional families; or because we are of a different sexual orientation; among us are also our immigrant brothers and sisters, all of us in some way or another have encountered experiences that have estranged us from the Church.
Other Catholics put us all in one basket. For them we are those who claim to believe yet do not live up to the commitment of faith. To us, faith is a confusing reality and this causes us great suffering.
We feel that not even the Church herself recognises our worth. One of our deepest wounds stems from the fact that although the political forces are prepared to realise our desire for integration, the Church community still considers us to be a problem.
With all the constant attacks on the Church and the Pope, over 150,000 gathered in St Peters Square recently to show their affection and support for the Pope. His visit to Britain was a resounding success, in spite of the rather negative tone adopted by RT?ë and some of the Irish media. Vast crowds of people in the UK turned out to cheer the Pope and express their affection for him. Fr Michael Collins has written a thoughtful and well balanced account of Benedicts first five years as Pope. He captures Benedict XVIs shy, self-effacing, erudite personality and temperament so meticulously.
- The Irish Catholic, 21 Oct 2010