Lyndsay Freer: Pontiff crossed religious divides

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Rabbi praised Benedict XVI's war against any instance of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, at home and abroad.

Black smoke billowing from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel indicates the cardinals are still deliberating on their choice for pope.  Photo / AP
Black smoke billowing from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel indicates the cardinals are still deliberating on their choice for pope. Photo / AP

The news of the Pope's decision to resign was received by Auckland Catholics with sadness, but also with a genuine admiration for the boldness of this initiative, clearly a decision that was made after a great deal of prayer and reflection on the part of Pope Benedict.

The whole Catholic world is in a state of shock at this announcement because it came without warning. The responsibilities and workload of the papacy is an enormous burden, and it seems that Pope Benedict, courageously, and from deep respect for the Petrine office, feels that diminishing strength of mind and body no longer allows him to fulfil his duties as he would wish.

His short pontificate of eight years has seen not only a workload of temporal and spiritual responsibilities that would be daunting for a man half his age, but also a concentration of major issues and problems that are facing the Church.

Not least of these is the sexual abuse scandal which he largely inherited; his anguished and frustrated attempts to have the break-away "traditionalist" movement, the St Pius X Society, become reconciled with mainstream Catholicism; the plight of Catholics (and Christians generally) in many parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East and China; as well as the unprecedented moral, medical and social changes that are taking place largely in Western society.

There are those who would criticise his so-called "conservatism" but there are more who appreciate his intellectual gifts, clarity of thought and expression, and great body of teaching he leaves behind.

Interfaith and ecumenical relations have been high on his agenda, yet his work in strengthening relationships particularly with Judaism and Islam may not be so well known. Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, said following the resignation announcement, "During his tenure we had the best relationship between the Church and the Chief Rabbinate, and we hope that this trend will continue.

"I think he should be respected for promoting relations between Judaism, Christianity and Islam throughout the world. I wish him good health and a long life."

Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi, also responded to the Pope's resignation. "Pope Benedict XVI" he said, "should be praised for his steadfastness and his war against any instance of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, at home and abroad.

"The Pope will also be remembered as having said 'the Jews are our older brothers', and even added that 'the Jews are our ancestors'."

In a statement reacting to Pope Benedict's decision to step down at the end of this month, Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said: "We offer the American Muslim community's best wishes to Pope Benedict XVI as he leaves his position as head of the Catholic Church. In recent years - and despite some passing controversies - relations between Muslims and Catholics have strengthened, particularly on issues related to social justice and family values". In the coming days the world's cardinals will begin their journeys to Rome to meet in conclave for the election of a new pope. It is expected that the usual age-old processes will be followed; many initial meetings of those in the different language groups as well as general discussions will be held before they move to the Sistine Chapel to cast their votes which will be heralded by smoke coming from the chapel's chimney.

They will be looking at the challenges that face the Church and the particular charisma they believe a prospective pope must bring to face these challenges.

Names of potential candidates (papabile) are already being touted and the bookmakers are busy. There is speculation that a non-European might be chosen, someone from the African or American continents, or from Eastern or Asian regions. It has been suggested that because of the relatively unchanged nature of European-based Catholic tradition and liturgy, a pope from a non-European culture might not quite fit the model. Yet inculturation, the adaptation of one faith within a diversity of cultures, has been part of Catholic history since the days of St Paul and the Apostles.

The late, great Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan in a challenging interview shortly before his death said there was room for improvement in how the Church applied its teaching. He spoke of a "journey of transformation" that the Church at every level needs to embark upon.

Clearly, Pope Benedict more than anyone else is conscious of this and of the need for younger, stronger shoulders to lead the way and carry the weight.

Lyndsay Freer handles media and communications for the Catholic diocese of Auckland.

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