Something Beautiful Has Begun

Vatican City

At the open-air mass in St. Peter’s on April 2, the third anniversary of the death of John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI spoke movingly – he brought mist to the eyes of our little group of visiting Americans – of John Paul’s life, and the meaning of his suffering. “Among his many human and supernatural qualities he had an exceptional spiritual and mystical sensitivity,” said the pontiff, who knew John Paul long and intimately. (Those who hope for swift canonization please note: “supernatural.” Benedict the philosopher does not use words lightly.)

He spoke of the distilled message of John Paul’s reign: “Be not afraid,” the words “of the angel of the Resurrection, addressed to the women before the empty tomb.” Which words were themselves a condensed message: Nothing has ended, something beautiful has begun, but you won’t understand for a while.

Pope Benedict XVIBenedict was doing something great leaders usually don’t do, which is invite you to dwell on the virtues of his predecessor.

We did. You couldn’t hear Benedict without your eyes going to the small white window in the plain-walled Vatican where John Paul’s private chambers were, and from which he spoke to the world. Quick memory-images: the windows open, the crowd goes wild, and John Paul is waving, or laughingly shooing away a white bird that repeatedly tried to fly in and join him, or, most movingly, at the end, trying to speak and not able to, and trying again and not able to, and how the crowd roared its encouragement.

Oh, you miss that old man when you are here! You feel the presence of his absence. The souvenir shops know. They sell framed pictures and ceramic plates of the pope: John Paul. Is there no Benedict? There is. A photo of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger being embraced by . . . John Paul. It’s now on my desk in New York. They have their hands on each other’s shoulders and look in each other’s eyes. A joyful image. They loved each other and were comrades.

When I was writing a book about John Paul, I’d ask those who’d met him or saw him go by: What did you think, or say? And they’d be startled and say, “I don’t know, I was crying.”

John Paul made you burst into tears. Benedict makes you think. It is more pleasurable to weep, but at the moment, perhaps it is more important to think.

A Vatican reporter last week said John Paul was the perfect pope for the television age, “a man of images.” Think of the pictures of him storm-tossed, tempest-tossed, standing somewhere and leaning into a heavy wind, his robes whipping behind him, holding on to his crosier, the staff bearing the image of a crucified Christ, with both hands, for dear life, as if consciously giving Christians a picture of what it is to be alive.

Benedict, the reporter noted, is the perfect pope for the Internet age. He is a man of the word. You download the text of what he said, print it, ponder it.

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Now he is the man at the window. What do we see? This is what I saw as his popemobile came close by in the square: tall man, white hair, shy eyes, deep-set. He is waving, trying to act out pleasure at being the focus of all eyes, center stage. He is not a showman but a scholar, an engaged philosopher nostalgic for the days – he has spoken of them – when he was a professor in a university classroom, surrounded by professors operating in a spirit of academic camaraderie and debate. But, his friends tell you, he enjoys being pope. He has become acclimated.

There is a sweetness about him – all in the Vatican who knew him in the old days speak of it – and a certain vagueness, as if he is preoccupied.

He lacks an immediately accessible flair. Popes didn’t use to have to have flair, but now perhaps it is expected of them. John Paul was many things – theologian, canny anticommunist – but he was a showman, too. Woo woo, he teased the cheering children of America on his first trip. John Paul II, he loves you! Such a small thing, and yet somehow it broke your heart. The world then needed the liveliness of faith, its joy, its gaiety even. I was told this week his Vatican hadn’t quite approved of what they saw as his antics. Well, that’s why God didn’t make them pope.

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Now Benedict comes to America, his first trip as pope. The highlight in the Vatican’s eyes is his address to the United Nations. No one knows what he will say. He will no doubt call for peace, for that is what popes do, and should do. Beyond that? Perhaps some variation on themes from his famous Regensburg address, in September 2006.

There he traced and limned some of the development of Christianity, but he turned first to Islam. Faith in God does not justify violence, he said. “The right use of reason” prompts us to understand that violence is incompatible with the nature of God, and the nature, therefore, of the soul. God, he quotes an ancient Byzantine ruler, “is not pleased by blood,” and “not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.” More: “To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm.” This is a message for our time, and a courageous one, too. (The speech was followed by riots and by Osama bin Laden’s charge that the pope was starting a new “crusade.”)

The trip begins in Washington, and the White House has announced that the pope and the president will “continue their dialogue on the interplay of faith and reason.” (This prompted a long-suffering Bush supporter to say, “I’m seeing the collision of matter and antimatter.”)

Catholics who hope for a successful visit have some anxiety that a distracted Vatican apparatus, working, sort of, with a confused American team waiting on decisions, will fail to allow Benedict to be what he is to best effect, to break through and reveal some of his nature. An American journalist took it upon himself to remind papal representatives that the pope turns 81 while in Washington. Perhaps people could be urged to sing . . . “Happy Birthday”? Benedict some time back wowed a group of schoolchildren when he spoke to them of Antonietta Meo, who may in time become the church’s youngest nonmartyred saint. Is he meeting with schoolchildren here?

Another small fear, born of hearing him last week at the mass. Benedict spoke in many languages including English, which he speaks fluidly and with a strong German accent. This is an accent that 60 years of World War II movies have taught Americans to hear as vaguely sinister, or comic. The nicer commentators may say he sounds like Col. Klink in “Hogan’s Heroes.” I hope he speaks even more than usual about love, for that may remove the sting, as love does.

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I forgot to say that as he went through the crowds last week, after the mass, thousands from all over the world ran toward him, reached for him, applauded. It was festive, sprawling, and as they cheered, for a moment St. Peter’s felt like what Benedict said it was in the days after John Paul’s death, the beating “heart of the world.” It was rousing, but also comforting. Afterward I thought: Nothing is ended, something beautiful has begun, we just won’t understand it for a while.