|Pope Benedict XVI stands on a wheeled platform as he arrives for a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 16. CNS photo by Paul Haring
The papal year 2012 begins with the focus of some in the media not on Pope Benedict XVI’s writings or even the on-going challenge of the sex abuse crisis but on the state of the pontiff’s health. Renewed questions about the pope’s physical condition have added a new element of concern to what is a busy schedule of papal travel and events in the coming year.
The pope plans to visit Mexico, Cuba, Monaco and Ukraine, while the big travel question remains as yet unanswered: a journey to Ireland in June for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress.
And then there is a packed fall papal schedule in Rome, including the Synod of Bishops, the start of the Year of Faith and the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.
Last October, the world’s media— not to mention Catholics everywhere — were surprised by the news that Pope Benedict had started using a wheeled platform to assist the long walk down the central aisle of St. Peter’s Basilica. The transport device was last seen during the final years of Pope Blessed John Paul II’s pontificate, so the visual was a striking one. The Italian journalist and Vatican expert Andrea Tornielli subsequently revealed that the pope is suffering from a degenerative condition in the joints of his legs that makes walking painful. Wild speculation that the pontiff might retire in April when he turns 85 was dismissed by the Vatican, but it is clear that Pope Benedict still faces the natural challenges of being an octogenarian.
One thing that is certain, of course, is that any limitations on the pope’s mobility will require logistical measures for his assistance once the papal trips for the year begin.
The visits to Cuba and Mexico will bring Pope Benedict back to Latin America, where the Church is growing exponentially but also grappling with great dangers, including the poaching of Catholics by Pentecostals, secularism and agnosticism, economic instability and a new drift toward anti-Catholic leftist governments.
The journey to Cuba will be officially to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, the patroness of Cuba. Mexico is a logical addition to the itinerary given its size and importance in Latin America. Look for Pope Benedict to tie the problems faced by Mexicans, especially economic stagnation and the staggering violence caused by the drug cartels, to the upcoming Year of Faith and the program of the New Evangelization in Central and South America called for during the papal trip to Brazil in 2007. Catholics comprise more than half of the population of Cuba and 90 percent of the population of Mexico.
The trip to Monaco will be the first by a pope in some 500 years. Pope Clement VII in 1532 was the last pope to travel to Monaco, and Pope Benedict’s sojourn to the principality will reinforce the longstanding relationship between the Holy See and the House of Grimaldi that has ruled Monaco with brief interruptions since 1297.
The pope is expected to make his way to Ukraine for the commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Lviv. There are nearly 5 million Catholics in Ukraine, 10 percent of the total population, and the Eastern Catholics there are both proud of their heritage and mindful of the brutal oppression they endured under the Soviet Union, when all of their bishops were killed or imprisoned and their property seized by the government and given to the Orthodox. Religious freedoms were regained slowly in the 1980s, but serious tensions arose with the Orthodox over ownership of property.
There is little enthusiasm for Pope Benedict’s presumptive Ukrainian sojourn as the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow sees Ukraine as the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church and has been unhappy with the strong Catholic revival in the country. Pope Benedict and the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, have enjoyed a longstanding friendship, however, so it remains to be seen if the papal trip impacts the improving relations between Rome and Moscow.
The most notable of papal trips in 2012 is the one that seems unlikely to happen. Until recent months, Pope Benedict was unofficially scheduled to travel to Dublin, Ireland, for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in June. The Congress presented the pontiff a chance to speak personally to the Irish at a time when the Church in the traditionally staunch Catholic country has suffered an immense loss of credibility over the sex abuse of minors by Catholic clergy and the utter failure on the part of many bishops to deal with the problem. Organizers of the Eucharistic Congress hope that the focus on the Eucharist will be the source of reconciliation and healing, and the presence of the pope might have helped that process.
As it stands, the present Irish government, pandering to public anger and beset with its own enormous debt problems, has refused to invite the pope, and its hypercritical foreign minister Eamon Gilmore has declared that the government has no plans to do so. Last July, Enda Kenny, the Irish Taoiseach, or prime minister, directly attacked the Holy See for its supposed “dysfunctionality and elitism” in the sex abuse crisis. Soon after, the government announced it was closing its embassy to the Holy See for cost-cutting reasons.
In November, Pope Benedict appointed an American, Archbishop-designate Charles Brown, an official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as the new papal nuncio, or ambassador, to Ireland.
Hectic fall schedule
In October, the pope embarks on a hectic schedule that includes the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the opening of the Year of Faith.
The four events form a series of interconnected celebrations that represent different facets of Pope Benedict’s wider vision for the Church. An expert at Vatican II, Pope Benedict has taught extensively on the authentic implementation of the council, and the anniversary of the start of the council in 1962 is closely connected to the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization that seeks to rebuild Christian culture in those places where secularism and relativism dangerously have seized the initiative. It is also not a coincidence that the Year of Faith begins on the anniversary of the council’s inauguration by Blessed Pope John XXIII.
Adding to the demands on the pope are a likely consistory to create new cardinals and the canonization of new saints, even as Pope Benedict heads into the grueling cycle of Advent. Keep an eye on both of these events as they are probably to be of great interest to Americans.
Matthew Bunson is the editor of The Catholic Answer and The Catholic Almanac (OSV, $32.95)