Pope Paul VI was the first Pope to travel long distances outside the Vatican. A small slight man of great culture, he began the era of the ‘travelling Pope’. Up to then Popes had spent most of their time in the Apostolic Palace in Rome. This change of direction also required physical strength.
Pope John Paul II was the uber athletic Pope who travelled and travelled and travelled. He had an incredible presence and forceful personality and Romans appreciated very much his role in the liberation of Eastern Europe. He was not particularly popular in Rome – believe it or not – until he was attacked in St Peter’s Square. Then the wheel turned and people began to pay a lot of attention to the papacy and the health of the Pope. They held vigils outside the hospital during his many stays there. Complications after the shooting meant that he had many health problems deriving from this horrible incident and incredibly people were looking at a man who had a kind of double papacy (one when he was healthy and one when he was not). His mission was clearly, apart from other things, to bring people to the awareness of illness. He sanctified illness like no other person has done.
Coming back to Pope Benedict, he is a man who has lived in Rome for almost 40 years. He is famous for his love to cats and animals in general. I once saw him patting the heads of two St Bernard dogs and they gazing at him in adoration. Every year a famous Italian Circus comes to visit the Pope and a few times they brought lion cubs to be petted by him. The faces of the cardinals were a picture but there was Benedict touching and chatting to the cubs.
People are always talking about the popularity of JPII but what they do not know is that the number of people coming to Pope Benedict’s audiences was 10 times higher than that of JPII. All done in silence of course. In the early days of his papacy the Vatican Palace fax machine broke down because people were sending in requests 24 hours a day. They had to get a new high-tech one to keep up with the demand. This demand has never diminished. Meaning, his popularity was quiet and constant. People could hear the ‘sound of his mind’. His ability to summarise in a simple and clear manner very complex concepts and the Gospel itself was well known here in Rome. He was able to persuade oceans of people to remain in complete silence during the liturgy or when he was speaking. I have never seen anyone else do this.
Many times I have been able to watch live coverage of his overseas visits and three episodes stand out in my mind. One was his visit to Jordan and the incredible welcome speech given by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, one of Islam’s foremost intellectuals and scholars. The other was his visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and the look of respect and amazement on the face of the Grand Mufti, Mustafa Cagrici, as Pope Benedict stood in silent prayer. The third episode was in Spain (World Youth Day) when he asked his driver to stop at the famous arch in Madrid (this had been scrapped from the itinerary because of time). He got out and greeted the young people (to their incredible joy and tears) and then stood looking like a small boy struck by a sense of wonder, as six Andalusian white horses were put through their paces in a special equine greeting which finished with the horses bowing gracefully before him.
The young Roman people saw him as a rock and a point of reference and security. Unfortunately this will all come out eventually, with the passing of time, when people finally realize the incredible qualities of a man who was able to teach us with his incredible writings and homilies and also with his acceptance of our ‘temporal status’ as humans. His sense of responsibility for the church means he has put God before himself. He wants a younger man to take over the reins and he will retire to the Mount to pray and be with his faithful. This he reassured people today at the last Angelus in St. Peter’s Square. He said it was God calling him to take this action and he obeyed!
In a world where the media is always buzzing and people are always talking nobody is listening any more to anyone but the Romans have a head start when it comes to Pope Benedict XVI.
Prof. Breda C. Ennis is an associate professor at the American University of Rome and visiting lecturer at Universita Europea di Rome/Pontificia Ataneo Regina Apostolorum.