Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- By any measure, it was an extraordinary year for Pope Benedict XVI.
Most of the world has followed the highlights through the lens of the mass media -- his election in the April conclave, his visit to Germany in August, his growing popularity and even his fashionable ecclesial clothing.
On Dec. 22, the pope offered a personal look at the year in review. Although he spoke for nearly an hour, he barely mentioned his own election -- a demonstration of the humility he has shown from the beginning of his pontificate.
Instead, he focused on the death of his predecessor, World Youth Day, the closing of the eucharistic year and the commemoration of the Second Vatican Council.
And, of course, on Jesus. Born in a manger, the pope said, Jesus has a power "completely different from the destructive power of violence," and far more effective.
The occasion was the pope's annual pre-Christmas encounter with the Roman Curia. The pope wore his red velvet cape trimmed with ermine, the Clementine Hall was decorated with poinsettias, and a Christmas tree was bedecked with lights.
The idea was to exchange season's greetings with Vatican officials; Pope Benedict gave them a nine-page speech.
He began by paying tribute to Pope John Paul II, saying the late pope's fame as a world traveler and communicator only made his final days of suffering and silence more powerful.
Interestingly, it was a TV image that stuck out in Pope Benedict's mind: when the late pope was shown in his apartment the week before his death, gripping a cross as he watched the Way of the Cross broadcast from Rome's Colosseum.
Pope Benedict recalled his own first papal trip, a visit to Germany to preside over World Youth Day. But his biggest memory was not the cheering and chanting that greeted him from the immense crowd. Instead, he said, it was the sound of silence -- the "intense silence of those million young people" as they prayed together in a field before the exposed Eucharist.
The pope said the rediscovery of adoration in the church was also evident at the world Synod of Bishops in October, which closed the Year of the Eucharist. He said eucharistic adoration and the Mass were once seen in opposition, but that seems to have been overcome in the modern church.
The pope saved his most detailed analysis for Vatican II, which ended 40 years ago. It's a subject that has generated decades of debate within the church, including some critical comments by the pope when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
The pope said there was no denying that the reception of Vatican II has been difficult for the church. In explaining why, he said there was a right way and a wrong way to understand the council.
The wrong way, he said, sees the council as a break with the past -- a view that often has the sympathy of the mass media. Its proponents think the council's documents are imperfect, and so "one should follow not the texts of the council but its spirit," he said.
He said the proper understanding of the council, on the other hand, understands the council's reforms in continuity with the church's tradition and its basic teachings.
At this point, the pope went off into a lengthy and complex reflection on the church's relationship with the modern world. He said the council's great task was to help heal the rift between the church and modernity, in three specific problematic relationships: faith and science, church and state, and Christianity and other religions.
Given the bold statements that came out of the council on these relationships, it was natural that some would see only the apparent discontinuity with church tradition, instead of understanding them as an evolution of core Christian beliefs, he said.
But that would be to misconstrue the council's intent, he said.
"The church is, before and after the council, the same one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, moving forward through the times," he said.
After the pope arrived to applause in the packed Vatican hall, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, head of the College of Cardinals, gave a speech that concentrated on the pope's election.
Pope Benedict mentioned the conclave in passing, recalling that he felt "not a little fear" at being chosen and added: "Such a task was completely outside what I could have imagined as my vocation."
He said that only with "a great act of trust in God" was he able to give assent to his election.
Last spring, after the 26-year papacy of Pope John Paul, many people needed time to get used to the idea that Cardinal Ratzinger was now Pope Benedict.
Eight months later, as he delivered a speech his listeners could ponder well into the new year, it was difficult to imagine anyone else sitting on the papal throne.
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