Monday, February 19, 2007

München Calling?

Ash Wednesday may augur what's been called the annual "rush of the buffalo" on churches the world over, but as Pope Benedict gears up for the Lenten kickoff, a similar deluge charged through the Apostolic Palace for today's slate of papal audiences. And the lineup wasn't all that shabby, either.

Continuing the months-long parade of Italian bishops on the CEI's quinquennial ad limina visit, the Pope received four prelates from the region of Umbria for their individual sit-downs. (Which, in Benedict's Teutonic style, last 15 minutes on the nose... with rare exceptions.) And with an eye to the penitential season, a group audience was had for the confessors of the major Roman basilicas, now called the "Pontifical" or "Papal Basilicas" in light of Benedict's renunciation of the patriarchal dignity last year.

If you think this had nothing to do with the Italian media's recent cycle of Confession-gate (courtesy of L'Espresso, amplified by the hopping-mad reaction of L'Osservatore Romano), think again.

In his address to the "penitenzieri" of Ss. John Lateran, Mary Major, Paul's Outside the Walls, Peter's and Lawrence, the pontiff noted that a confessor, "complying with docile adhesion to the Magisterium of the Church," plays not a passive role but that of a "dramatis persona" in the sacrament of reconciliation, which marks a "spiritual rebirth" and "transforms the penitent into a new creature."

The Pope urged priests to prepare for this work "uniting a good spiritual and pastoral sensibility [with] serious theological, moral and pedagogical preparation."

Even more notable than the penitential pep-talk, however, was the Bavarian Benedict's summons of a Bavarian Benedictine: the newly-elevated Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt.

All of 52, Hanke was abbot of his home community of Plankstetten until being named to head his native diocese last October. A product of Oxford, Würzburg and the Orientale in Rome, he might've been ordained to the episcopacy only in early December, but the youngest German bishop is no stranger to the mitre and crozier; the theologian-prelate was elected abbot of Plankstetten at 39 and served as abbot-counselor to the Bavarian branch of the OSBs.

The backdrop (and, yes, there is one): the onetime archbishop of Munich and Freising (a theologian who was the youngest German bishop at the time of his appointment) is still mulling over his options for the succession to his old job, the church's top post in Bavaria.

As for the other shoe dropping, stay tuned.

B16's lone afternoon meeting is a private audience with the retired Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who remains the dean of the College of Cardinals. It's the first one-on-one the two have had since Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone replaced Sodano last September... and finally got to move into the cardinal-secretary's official apartment only after weeks (upon weeks) passed.

Ash Wednesday may still be two days away, but in keeping with his prompt style, it appears the Pope's begun his Lenten observance a tad ahead of schedule.