Vatican City, Aug 8, 2008
The world sees the public side of Pope Benedict XVI generally at big ceremonial events in Rome or on foreign travels, when he's under the glare of the media.
But over the last three years, the "real Benedict " has emerged most fully in a series of semiprivate encounters with an audience he feels at home with -- groups of priests.
In the northern Italian city of Bressanone in early August, the 81-year-old pope engaged in what has become a summer tradition: a question-and-answer session with the region's diocesan and religious priests.
The dialogue ran the gamut from environmental problems to papal primacy, and the pope took more than 10 minutes to answer each of the six questions. There weren't many softballs tossed his way.
One priest asked whether pastors should administer sacraments of Communion and confirmation to young people who aren't really aware of their significance.
The pope, in a moment of self-revelation that's become typical of these encounters, said he used to be more strict about administering the sacraments, but he's come to see that it's more important to be generous if it can encourage even a "glimmer" of faith.
The comment immediately prompted speculation that Pope Benedict might prove to be somewhat more lenient than expected on other sacramental issues, including the church's current policy of no Communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment.
Another priest, picking up on a strong papal theme of late, wondered whether the church over the centuries had dropped the ball when it comes to moral teaching on environmental protection.
The pope acknowledged some gaps in the church's attention to ecology, but said it was false to suggest that the Christian understanding of "subduing" the earth meant carelessly exploiting its resources.
"The brutal consumption of creation begins where there is no God, where material is considered only material for us," he said. "And the squandering of creation begins where we no longer recognize any power over us, but see only ourselves."
People today have the strong sensation that "the world is slipping away," he said, and it's a perfect opportunity for the church to publicly promote the Christian solution, which must include a more humble and moderate lifestyle.
What distinguishes these encounters is that the pope obviously feels he is speaking as a priest among priests, not an authority figure doing an obligatory drop-by.
During his first summer meeting with priests in 2005, he told his audience: "I also want to say that the pope is not an oracle, that he is infallible in only the rarest of situations, as we know." That's a point the pope has made more than once as a preface to his responses; he's there to provide reflection and some guidance, not prefabricated answers to pastoral dilemmas.
In addition to the summer meetings in various parts of Italy, the pope holds the same kind of informal meetings each year with the several hundred priests of the Diocese of Rome. The first came shortly after his election, when he fielded 12 questions and comments.
The get-togethers allow the pope to hear what's on the minds of priests these days. For the most part, the focus has been on modern pastoral trials: the continuing drift away from the sacraments, the difficulties in educating young people beyond a certain age, the loss of church members to religious sects and the challenge of invigorating parish life.
One repeated issue in these dialogues has been the shortage of priests.
In Bressanone, for example, one questioner spoke of the lack of priests in connection with priestly celibacy and the role of women. In other contexts, this might have been seen as raising a taboo subject. The pope took it in stride, although, as Italians would put it, he "dribbled" the question without really confronting the issue of women's ordination or the relaxation of celibacy rules.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told CNS that the pope wants to keep the free-flowing atmosphere of these encounters. He's made only one rule -- that it take place away from the public and the media.
The content comes out when the Vatican publishes a transcript a few days later. That's usually long enough to take the edge off the media's appetite.
Of course, the pope has been generous with the media, too. On his recent flights to the United States and Australia, he gave reporters 20 minutes of question-and-answer time.
His clerical audiences, on the other hand, are often treated to nearly two hours of unrehearsed dialogue. With priests, the pope is clearly in his comfort zone.
The Rev. Jim Peck has an unusual background for a United Church of Christ minister.
He was raised Southern Baptist, began his working career as a regional planner and was inspired to become a pastor by Pope John Paul II.
Peck said he's glad to be in Chico and excited about his new position. He'll be formally installed at a special service on Sept. 14.
Born in North Carolina, he later moved with his family to Atlanta, where he went to high school and college.
He and his parents belonged to a "non-fundamentalist" Southern Baptist Church, "a wonderful church with a loving, caring spirit," he said. "I got a great education understanding the Bible."
He also developed an open mind, he said, as his parents and pastor advised him, "Don't let anybody tell you it's just one way."
Peck majored in urban studies at Mercer University and then did graduate work in regional planning at Cornell.
He worked in Atlanta for 10 years, specializing in affordable housing. He was employed by the state Housing Department.
In 1990, Peck went to work as an adviser to Colorado Gov. Roy Romer. He had 28 "issue areas" on which he advised the governor. One area was "church-state issues."
"That was a great job," he said. However, he'd gone into politics with the goal of helping people and after a time, he felt he was no longer doing much of that. He began thinking of a different career — perhaps law, perhaps the ministry.
As it happened, Pope John Paul II came to Denver for a World Youth Day, and Peck was given two tickets. He and a friend went and found themselves sitting right in front of the stage. At one point they were just six feet from the pope.
It was amazing, being part of that event, where 350,000 people from all over the world were standing and singing, he said. "This clinched the deal" on a next move.
Peck said he told his friend, "I think I need to become a minister."
The vision he had was of "individual folks acting out of their faith commitments to help each other build a better world," he said.
Peck graduated in 1999 with a master's of divinity from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.
His first position was as pastor of a Congregational church in Austin, Minn., where he served until moving to Chico.
In Austin, he profited by his involvement with other ministers, he said. "I'm from a liberal tradition, but, boy, I sure have learned a lot from listening to my evangelical colleagues."
Members of his Chico congregation impress him with their seriousness about Jesus' commandment to "love one another," he said. "It's a good church, a good group of folks."
He added, "I like the idea of helping a small church grow and thrive."
Vatican City, Aug. 7, 2008
Four days before the opening of the Olympic Games, Pope Benedict XVI highlighted his hope for China to welcome the Good News when he visited the birthplace of an Italian missioner who died in the mainland almost 100 years ago.
We know that China is becoming ever more important in political and economic life, and in the life of ideas. It is important that this great country open to the Gospel," the scholar-pope said on Aug. 5. Observers interpreted his remarks as a passionate call for full religious freedom in the mainland, and for China to open fully to Christianity and understand it has nothing to fear from the religion.
The pope had already mentioned China earlier in the week. On Sunday Aug. 3, speaking from a prepared text, he publicly conveyed his good wishes to China and all involved in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, due to open on Aug. 8.
On Tuesday evening he touched on the sensitive subject of religion in China. On this occasion he spoke without a prepared text, although the daily Italian-language L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, ran the story on the front page of its Aug. 7 edition.
Pope Benedict recognizes China allows a degree of religious freedom, but within limits. He wants to assuage any fears or concerns Chinese authorities have and help them understand how the Gospel can engage in a full and honest dialogue with Chinese culture, and not cause alienation.
The pope pointed to Saint Joseph Freinademetz (1852-1909), who preached the Gospel in China for 29 years, as an example of how Christianity can truly integrate with all that is good in Chinese culture.
He spoke after visiting the house where the saint was born in Oies, a tiny mountain village in northeastern Italy's Val Badia region. The house attracts pilgrims, many from China, but Pope Benedict made his remarks in the village's new church, which resembles a Chinese pagoda.
The saint joined the newly founded Society of the Divine Word in 1879, after being ordained a diocesan priest 14 years earlier. He served in Hong Kong 1879-1881 and then preached in southern Shandong province, eastern China, for 27 years. He survived the anti-foreigner violence of the Boxer revolt, but died of typhoid in 1908 in Daijiazhuang and was buried there. Pope John Paul II canonized him in 2003.
Elaborating, the Holy Father said: "Saint Joseph Freinademetz shows us that the faith is not an alienation for any culture, for any people, because all cultures await Christ and are not destroyed by the Lord; rather, they reach their maturity (in him)."
Portraits of the saint and historical accounts testify to how much he sought to identify with the Chinese people. He grew a pointed beard and dressed in clothing typical of the time and place. After arriving in China, he never returned home.
"Saint Joseph Freinademetz wanted not only to live and die as a Chinese, but also to remain Chinese in heaven," the pope said. "In this way he ideally identified himself with this people, in the certainty that it would open to faith in Jesus Christ."
Pope Benedict invited the congregation to pray for the saint's encouragement "to go towards Christ, because he alone can unite peoples, only he can unite cultures." He added, "Let us pray too that he may give courage to many young people to dedicate their lives totally to the Lord and to his Gospel."
The village where the saint once lived has only 15 inhabitants today, but 5,000 pilgrims greeted the pope when he arrived by helicopter from the seminary in nearby Bressanone, where he is vacationing.
The visitors' book inside the saint's former house bears the names of many Chinese who came to honor the missioner called Fu Shenfu (priest of happiness), including Divine Word Cardinal Thomas Tien Keng-hsin, the first Chinese cardinal, from 1963.
Pope Benedict added: "May the Lord, through the intercession of Saint Josef Freinademetz, grant many spiritual vocations and open China ever more to faith in Jesus."
Sydney, July 17, 2008 - Pope Benedict on Thursday told a huge gathering of young people that they were inheriting a planet whose resources had been scarred and squandered to fuel insatiable consumption.
His latest appeal to save the planet for future generations came in a address to some 150,000 youths in Sydney after he rode through the city's harbour standing on the outdoor deck of a white ferry as dozens of boats blew their horns.
"Reluctantly we come to acknowledge that there are also scars which mark the surface of our earth, erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world's mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption," he told the cheering crowd.
The 81-year-old pope appeared in good form as he started the official part of his trip after three days of rest. He chatted with young people on the ferry and stepped off sprightly to receive a bear hug welcome by an Aboriginal on the dock.
He told the young people, some of whom had come from island nations threatened by rising sea levels or drought-hit nations such as Australia, that protecting the environment was "of vital importance to humanity".
The pope recalled how his long flight from Rome last weekend, he marvelled at the sparkle of the Mediterranean, the grandeur of the north Africa desert, the lushness of Asia's forests and the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.
"It is as though one catches glimpses of the Genesis creation story -- light and darkness, the sun and the moon, the waters, the earth and living creatures," he said.
In a welcoming speech to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Thursday morning, the pope said: "It is appropriate to reflect upon the kind of world we are handing on to future generations".
Australia, one of the world's highest per capita greenhouse emitters due to coal-fired power stations, is in the grip of the worst drought in 100 years and is struggling to save its major river system that feeds the nation's food belt.
APOLOGY TO ABORIGINES PRAISED
The pope also praised Australia for apologising for past injustices to Aborigines, saying it was a courageous move to repair race relations and offered hope to the rest of the world.
Rudd officially apologised to Aborigines in February.
Australia's 460,000 Aborigines make up about 2 percent of the country's 21 million population and have consistently higher rates of unemployment, substance abuse and domestic violence, as well as a life expectancy 17 years less than other Australians.
The pope thanked Aborigines for a traditional welcoming ceremony and acknowledged Aborigines are the first people of Australia.
"I am deeply moved to stand on your land, knowing the suffering and injustices it has borne, but aware too of the healing and hope that are now at work...," he said.
The Catholic Church hopes World Youth Day, the brainchild of the late Pope John Paul II, will revitalise the world's young Catholics at a time when the cult of the individual and consumerism has become big distractions in their lives.
The pope said the "social world" also had scars, highlighting alcohol and drug abuse, violence and sexual degradation. He questioned how the media's portrayal of violence and sexual exploitation can be considered "entertainment".
He warned young pilgrims "do not be fooled by those who see you as just another consumer".
Pope Benedict has used his first address at World Youth Day to warn pilgrims of the dangers of sex and violence in the media.
More than 100,000 young people packed into the World Youth Day site in Australia's largest city, Sydney, to hear the Pontiff speak.
The Pope told the crowd of the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse, which he said threatened to corrode the good in people.
And he asked why violence and sexual exploitation were so often portrayed on television and the internet.
"I ask myself could anyone standing face to face with people who actually do suffer violence and sexual exploitation explain that these tragedies portrayed in virtual form are considered merely entertainment," he said.
The Pope was welcomed to the event by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dancers, and a group from the Pacific nation of Tokelau.
The Pontiff expressed his delight at attending a festival with young people from all over the world.
He spoke about the marvel of creation, but also warned of the threat to the earth from global warming:
"Some of you come from island nations whose very existence is threatened by rising water levels also from nations suffering the effects of devastating drought," he said.
Praise for Australian indigenous apology
Earlier, Pope Benedict XVI thanked the Australian government for its apology to the stolen generations.
In February, the prime minster, Kevin Rudd, delivered the apology over the actions of previous governments and agencies, who forcibly removed aboriginal children from their families.
Pope Benedict thanked Mr Rudd after being officially welcomed to Australia at Government House in Sydney.
"Thanks to the Australian government's courageous decision to acknowledge the injustices committed against indigenous people in the past concrete steps are now being taken to achieve reconciliation based on mutual respect," he said.
The Pope also spoke about Australia's commitment to protecting the natural environment and its peace keeping missions in the Pacific.