‘We’re at the beginning of a pontificate’

Archbishop Rino Fisichella (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

ROME — “We’re still at the beginning of a pontificate, and in my opinion it’s always difficult to make judgments or offer a far-ranging analysis at the beginning.”

Those simple words of Archbishop Rino Fisichella last night took some people by surprise. He was commenting on a new and somewhat critical book about Pope Benedict’s pontificate, which will reach the six-year mark in April.

The idea that Pope Benedict might enjoy a long reign is not new. Reporters have noticed that the German pope seems to deliberately pace himself, much as a long-distance runner would do. At 83, he seems in good health and of quick mind.

But Archbishop Fisichella is the first Roman Curia official to suggest that the controversies, scandals and missteps during Pope Benedict’s first six years may not loom so large in the future. At the very least, he said, “a sense of history should make us prudent and cautious from this point of view.”

He recalled that Pope John Paul II’s first years were also troubled by disagreement and internal dissent, making them “the most terrible and the longest years” of his pontificate. Pope Paul VI in his first six years was ignored, a true “voice crying in the wilderness,” and he gained stature in Italy only later, with actions like his direct appeal to Red Brigades terrorists, Archbishop Fisichella said.

As head of the newly formed Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, Archbishop Fischella said he appreciates that Pope Benedict has unfinished business as supreme pontiff. He said the pope’s main project is one of formation, in response to an “educational emergency” that afflicts people inside and outside the church.

He made the remarks at a press conference in Rome to present the book, C’era una Volta un Vaticano (“Once Upon a Time There Was a Vatican”) by Massimo Franco, a respected journalist who has written about Italian politics and the Catholic Church. The book describes a series of challenges that have greatly reduced the church’s influence in social and political life, including the sex abuse crisis and what the author calls the Vatican’s “gaffe factory.”