Pope Benedict XVI: A new legacy to build

It’s going to be difficult for many to get used to saying it: Pope Benedict XVI.

Barely moments after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been introduced as the new pope to the throngs waiting outside St. Peters’ Basilica and had given his first blessing as head of the Catholic Church, the media were swarming with stories about him: his youth in Nazi Germany, his conservative approach as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Some praised his deep intellect, equally deep faith and manner of speaking to people. Others suggested his closeness to John Paul II will represent continuity for the Church. And yet others expressed concern he is too conservative.

“We expected a person like John Paul,” said Jurandir Arauj, of the National Conference of Bishops Afro-Brazilian Section. “Somebody who could give the Church alternatives … open the Church to the world, look more at reality.”

Close scrutiny of the new pontiff is expected, even necessary in order for a waiting world to catch its first real glimpse of the man. But the legacy Pope Benedict XVI establishes must be entirely his own making.

As the Rev. Boniface Kasulo said recently after conducting a Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help church in Everett, “He’ll come with his own gifts. He doesn’t have to do what John Paul II did, he just has to be what he is.”

Whatever his doctrinal approach – whether he maintains what many have called a hard-line approach or “softens” a bit as some have suggested given the name he chose for himself – Pope Benedict XVI must follow John Paul II’s beloved practice of reaching out to the world, both Catholic and non-Catholic. What was considered by many John Paul II’s legacy has quite possibly become a precedent. How Pope Benedict XVI goes about continuing that important work will define in large part not only his style but his legacy, as well. The new pope already reached out to his followers in his first address in which he told the crowds, “I entrust myself to your prayers.”

At a time like this it is easy to forget that John Paul II was often the subject of criticism during his tenure, even within his beloved Church. He, too, was labeled conservative for his stance on issues such as abortion and contraception. Just as his predecessor, this self-described “simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord,” will face his own challenges, personally and spiritually.

While his reign will not be as long as John Paul II’s 26-year pontificate, there is still plenty of opportunity for this pope to uphold his beliefs while endearing himself to a world that is waiting and watching.

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