With St Peter’s basilica in all its splendour as backdrop in a centuries-old ceremony, Pope Benedict XVI gave his first homily as the new shepherd of the 1.1 billion Catholics last Sunday, wearing the Fisherman’s Ring for the first time, under a clement sky.
A couple of hours earlier, journalists on top of the colonnade superbly known as the Braccio di Carlo Magno overlooking St Peter’s Square were skimming through an advance copy of the four-pages-long homily (single-spaced, 12 point) supplied by the Holy See’s press office, in search of this new Pope’s trademarks for their headlines.
But as with every speech, one has to listen to the speaker utter his own statements, and the ensuing applauses – he got 39 in all – to digest the message completely.
The bad press he got even before the conclave somehow served to make the sceptics listen to him even more attentively, giving him no honeymoon period at all. From God’s Rotweiller as the Vatican’s official dogma watchdog – a seat inherited from the inquisitors of old – to Pope Benedict, this is a marked transition in office which raises even more questions about the Church’s direction.
He didn’t answer any, though his conciliatory words suggest he wants to break with his own past as the chief articulator of condemnations and chaser of heresy.
“At this moment there is no need for me to present a programme of governance,” the Bavarian Pope said to a ringing applause from the 400,000 or so gathered in front of him. “My real programme of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen ... to the world and the will of the Lord.”
To listen, if that’s what he will actually do, would already mark one of the divine shifts in this 78-year-old Pontiff, after making a name for himself for his pessimistic outlook that came with his former office.
In his frail voice, Pope Benedict delved into the medieval interpretation of the scripture; the shepherd and the fisherman, and the desert, calling for a spiritual revival in a barren world of secularism, consumerism, corruption, exploitation and environmental destruction, suggesting that this Papacy be even more socially and politically outspoken than expected.
“The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast,” the pontiff declared as monarchs, Presidents and Prime Ministers assisted to his inauguration, including President Eddie Fenech Adami and Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi.
He spoke timidly of himself and about his inadequacy to be Pontiff: “And now, at this moment, weak servant of God that I am, I must assume this enormous task, which truly exceeds all human capacity. How can I do this? How will I be able to do it?”
He said the faithful’s prayers would sustain him: “I am not alone. I do not have to carry alone what in truth I could never carry alone. “All the Saints of God are there to protect me, to sustain me and to carry me. And your prayers, my dear friends, your indulgence, your love, your faith and your hope accompany me.”
And he also gave a strong message of unity within the Church as well as extending his hand to those out of it: “Like a wave gathering force, my thoughts go out to all men and women of today, to believers and non-believers alike.”
Towards the end, he prayed to God to grant “that we may be one flock and one shepherd”, and to “not allow your net to be torn”.
Just a few days after his fellow cardinals elected him as the 265th Pope, it remains to be seen how much this will be a listening Pontiff, and how much unity he will instil in the broad Roman Catholic Church.
Some say that at his age, he was probably chosen as a transitional Pope, but the memory of John XXIII elected at the age of 76 ending up astonishing everyone with his radical reforms of the Second Vatican Council should remind us that God’s shepherd may take his flock into unforeseen pastures.
Karl Schembri was present at the Vatican for Pope Benedict’s
investiture mass last Sunday