VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Pope Benedict XVI never gives the impression of being overburdened, yet a look back at 2007 reveals a long list of papal activities and achievements.
The pope’s output included four major documents and a lengthy book, more than 200 speeches and sermons, two foreign trips and three in Italy, the creation of new cardinals, and encounters with a lineup of world leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush.
In April – just before celebrating his 80th birthday – the pope published Jesus of Nazareth, which made the case that Christ must be understood as the Son of God on a divine mission, not as a mere moralist or social reformer. In six months, the book had sold more than 2 million copies worldwide.
In June, the pope issued a 55-page letter to Chinese Catholics, setting out new guidelines to favor cooperation between clandestine Catholic communities and those officially registered with the government.
The pope’s letter strongly criticized the limits placed by the Chinese government on the church’s activities, but it invited civil authorities to a fresh and serious dialogue. Hopeful signs followed, as China and the Vatican agreed on several bishops’ appointment.
In July, in a long-awaited and much-debated document, the pope relaxed restrictions on the use of the Tridentine Mass, the Latin-language liturgy that predates the Second Vatican Council.
The pope said Mass celebrated according to the 1962 Roman Missal should be made available in every parish where groups of the faithful desire it – though he said the new Roman Missal, introduced in 1970, remains the ordinary way of Catholic worship.
November saw the release of the pope’s second encyclical, Spe Salvi (on Christian hope), which warned that without faith in God humanity lies at the mercy of ideologies that can lead to “the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice.”
One brief and unexpected document came in June, when the pope stipulated that a two-thirds majority is always required to elect a new pope. The document did away with a more flexible rule that allowed for a simple majority election in case of an impasse.
The pope approved publication of other documents issued at the Vatican in 2007, including a text by the International Theological Commission that critiqued the traditional concept of limbo and said there are good reasons to hope that babies who die without being baptized go to heaven.
He traveled to Brazil in May, his first papal trip to Latin America and the longest journey of his pontificate. Opening the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, he warned against inroads by secularism, threats against the family and an erosion of traditional Latin American values.
Visiting Austria in September, the pope prayed at a Marian shrine with tens of thousands of pilgrims. His Italian travels took him to Pavia, where he prayed at the tomb of St. Augustine, to Assisi in the footsteps of St. Francis, and to Naples for the opening of an interreligious conference.
The pope continued to gradually replace Roman Curia officials, but his most important set of appointments came this fall, when he named 23 new cardinals. Those receiving the red hat in a November consistory included two Americans: Cardinal John P. Foley, head of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, and Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.
In June, the pope met Bush for the first time for talks that focused on the precarious situation of Christians in Iraq and other conflicts in the Middle East. The Vatican took the opportunity to express the hope for a negotiated settlement to “the conflicts and crises that are tormenting the region.”
On other issues, the pope and the president examined moral and religious questions, including “the defense and promotion of life, marriage and the family,” the Vatican said.
The pope enhanced the Vatican agency that coordinates relations with Muslims, appointing Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran as head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
In October, 138 Muslim experts wrote a letter to the pontiff calling for new dialogue efforts based on the shared belief in one God, in God’s love for humanity and in people’s obligation to love one another. In response, the pope invited a varied group of Muslim scholars to meet with him and Vatican experts sometime next year.
The Vatican’s saintmakers were busy in 2007, with 17 beatification liturgies. The pope canonized five people, including a Franciscan friar who was Brazil’s first native-born saint.
One papal priority that rarely made headlines was his weekly audience talk. In 2007, the pope focused on early Christian witnesses and theologians, in essence continuing his version of Church History 101.
Throughout the year, the pope and Vatican offices gave increased attention to environmental concerns. Global warming was the subject of a Vatican-sponsored conference, and at the United Nations the Vatican’s representative said protecting the environment was a “moral imperative.”
The pope also spoke repeatedly about the moral responsibility to respect creation and share resources. In Austria, he even proposed that Sunday be considered not just a day of rest but as “the church’s weekly feast of creation.”
John Thavis is bureau chief for Catholic News Service based at the Vatican.