Saturday, December 31, 2005


2005 will be remembered as the year when, for better and for worse, the ancient traditions and minutiae of the Catholic church commanded center stage, literally before the eyes of the world.

Whether it was the continuing cultural demand for all things DaVinci Code, battles in the United States over issues such as imposing ecclesiastical sanctions on politicians, the seemingly ceaseless fall-out from the sex abuse scandals which began four years ago this week, or the unprecedented amount of interest which accompanied the run-up to the Congregation for Catholic Education's November Instruction on the admission of homosexuals to seminary formation, it seemed that every day had a Catholic-influenced story of some sort running prominently in the secular press.

The growth of the Catholic blogosphere and its increasing influence brought the faithful together across geographic lines as never before, while reminding the wider world and church that the ideological divisions which pose significant obstacles to unity, both among the faithful and between many laity and the hierarchy, remain. The church's response to the devastation and mass migration caused by Hurricane Katrina -- a pan-diocesan effort across the South which was accomplished in a relatively seamless fashion -- showed that, for all its failures in dealing with the abuse crisis, US Catholicism remains versatile and able to respond well under pressure. And despite the raised visibility and scrutiny of church affairs in the press and wider society, questions of human sexuality, women and life issues still garner the most heated discussions anytime things Catholic are on the agenda, regardless of the setting.

However, for future generations, the Catholic world of 2005 will be remembered primarily for none of the above.

"Vi ho cercato. E adesso, siete venuti a me. E vi ringrazio." Indeed, after 27 years of looking and traveling to the ends of the earth, the world came back to St. Peter's Square in the early days of spring to keep vigil as Pope John Paul II returned to the Father's house, and to offer him its thanks and love with the largest farewell any human being has ever received. In retrospect, what could have been a moment of crippling instability with the end of the 27-year reign of the Polish Pope who redefined the office, earning it the greatest credibility and visibility it had ever known, was carried out with nary a tremble. The in-depth coverage, stunning visuals and tributes bordering on the hagiographical gave Catholicism its finest hour of media exposure in memory.

As John Paul's death was inevitable and ended a half-decade of the Curia's near-paralysis, in terms of its ability to move on major issues, the greatest variable came with the impending Conclave and its implications for the future direction of the world's dominant moral authority. And while amateur pundits, armchair Cardinals and the world's top Vaticanologists spent the second half of the prior pontificate researching, building coalition-schemes and attempting to gauge the issues at stake, most of them still ended up wrong in prognosticating the Electors' choice of Joseph Ratzinger, who emblematically chose the peacemaker's name of Benedict XVI.

The year may be ending, but the crowds remain in the Square -- and the focus of the world is still squarely upon it. In eight and a half months, without a word out of place, any shadow of the Teutonic caricatures which saddled him on 19 April and with a radiant, almost youthful beam on his face throughout, the new Pope has shown the media-amplified prophecies of doom and chastisement of the Left which greeted his election to be what they always were: a farce. Then again, he has not entirely pleased those supporters of Cardinal Ratzinger who expected that the Panzerkardinal who embodied their highest hopes of purges, vindication and restoration would be the Panzerpapst of the same.

Easily, Benedict's most-alluring quality -- and the most gut-wrenching one, for the journalists and others who cover him for a living -- has been his inability to be "sound-bited." Unlike John Paul, when his successor speaks, even extemporaneously, it is not in an easy one or two sentences, but flowing, substantive paragraphs.

The new papacy operates in a similar style. While it's a frustration to those looking for a facile storyline, it has shown itself a healthy and fulfilling change for the church it serves.

Many nominations were received for the person or persons who, outside the past and present Popes, represented a significant element of Catholic life in this year. All thanks to those who took the time to send an idea or two along. However, in the course of the discussions among fellow journalists, clergy, rank-and-file faithful and others, it became clear that, while the Benedictine Era and its implications were the year's top story, its storyline has two clear dimensions salient to this outlet and its scope: a domestic track focusing on the United States, and a wider, international one.

The choice of the Churchman of the Year for 2005 reflects this. Such were the multifaceted effects of the new pontificate that only one fitting solution presented itself.

One outstanding cleric whose mission and work reached a remarkable new plateau only after his departure from this life -- a rise in prominence due in great part to his death -- was named the International honoree. And the embodiment of Benedict's inability to be ideologically pigeonholed, either by his pre-electoral cultists or detractors, is the recipient of the American prize.

May the effort that went into this review of a remarkable year, however cursory, inspire a healthy exchange of views and possibly be a source of further interest for things to look for in 2006. And may that New Year, which awaits but hours away, bring each of you and your loved ones all its choicest blessings.

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