pope benedict xvi

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These new cardinals include prelates from 11 dioceses and six countries that have never before had a cardinal, and from places far outside the traditional European orbit of ecclesiastical influence: Albania, for example, plus the Central African Republic, Lesotho, Mauritius, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea.

But the real surprise in these picks, as in past appointments, is that they came as a complete surprise to many of the new cardinals themselves, and to the pope’s closest collaborators.

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Centuries ago, of course, the love lives of the popes — and cardinals and various powerful prelates — became a source of constant fascination and scandal. In these days of great anxiety in the church about the role of gays and gay rights, leaking stories about papal crushes can also be useful for signaling that a pope is straight, and not just straight but also virile and seriously attractive to women, an attraction he naturally must renounce.

But it’s still a balancing act — trying to advertise a pontiff’s shared humanity with the flock while not encouraging prurient speculation.

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A Vatican ceremony June 28 featuring a rare joint appearance by Pope Francis and his predecessor seemed aimed at tamping down speculation about the unusual circumstance of having two living popes.

In recent weeks debate has erupted over whether there are two popes sharing authority in the church, or whether Francis is the sole successor of St. Peter.

Image via REUTERS/Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters/RNS

The Vatican has always been a hothouse for conspiracy theories, and a new controversy over the so-called Third Secret of Fatima is showing just how persistent such fixations can be — to the extent that the latest episode even forced Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI out of seclusion to refute claims that he once shaded the truth about the mysterious prophecy.

Image via Osservatore Romano / Handout via Reuters / RNS

Pope Francis launched the jubilee of mercy on Dec. 8 with the opening of the Vatican’s holy door, joined by his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and thousands of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square, surrounded by heavy security.

“This extraordinary year is itself a gift of grace,” Francis told the faithful gathered at the Vatican.

“To pass through the holy door means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them.”

Image via Max Rossi/REUTERS/RNS

Figuring out why Pope Francis has upended so many expectations and what he might be contemplating for the future of the Catholic Church has become a parlor game almost as popular as the pontiff himself.

A single key can unlock these questions: Francis’ long-standing identity as a Jesuit priest.

It’s an all-encompassing personal and professional definition that the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio brought with him from Buenos Aires, and one that continues to shape almost everything he does as pope — even though he is the first pontiff to take his name from the 13th century Italian monk from Assisi who was famous for living with the poor and preaching to the animals.

“He may act like a Franciscan but he thinks like a Jesuit,” quipped the Rev. Thomas Reese, a fellow Jesuit who is a columnist for National Catholic Reporter.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Tony Gentile / RNS

Cardinal Walter Kasper. Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Tony Gentile / RNS

Pope Francis has repeatedly said he expects his papacy to be a brief one, but Cardinal Walter Kasper is working to ensure that the pontiff’s legacy endures long after this pope leaves the scene.

From the first days of his pontificate two years ago, Francis singled out Kasper for high praise; ever since, the retired German cardinal is frequently known as “the pope’s theologian.”

It’s a moniker the churchman shrugs off with a smile, yet it’s also a label he’s doing nothing to shake, especially in light of Kasper’s most recent book, published last month — a short work that basically describes Francis as a theologian in his own right whose pastoral approach is setting Catholicism on a new course.

The title of the book, from the U.S. Catholic publishing house Paulist Press, says it all: Pope Francis’ Revolution of Tenderness and Love.

But the title also sums up the two-pronged challenge for those, like Kasper, who hope that Francis’ papacy represents lasting change.

Photo via Kimberly Winston / RNS

“Our Lady of the Grapes” overlooks the Trinitas Cellars vineyard in Napa Valley. Photo via Kimberly Winston / RNS

It was a good thing for Trinitas Cellars that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio took the name Pope Francis, and not, say Pope Malbecius.

When the Argentine cardinal became pope in 2013, Trinitas didn’t have any malbec — the famous Argentine grape — in its cellars. But it happened to have a few barrels of cabernet franc.

Behold! Thus was born “Cabernet FRANCis,” a 2012 red wine from Trinitas, a Catholic-owned winery nestled behind the iconic grape crusher statue at the southern foot of the Napa Valley.

“People kept asking me, ‘Why didn’t you make the pope a malbec?’” said Garrett Busch, the 28-year-old CEO of Trinitas, as he spoke in the winery’s book-lined library tasting room, a bottle of the wine before him. “And I’m like, ‘Come on guys, he made it easy on us.’”

Actually, the story is a bit more complicated. Trinitas, which is owned by Garrett’s parents, Tim and Steph Busch, made the family’s Catholic faith a part of business since its founding in 2002. Meetings and special events begin with prayer, winery dinners start with grace, and the winery’s website announces the family’s intention to “serve God in all they do.”

Even its name is Latin for the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Photo via neneo / Shutterstock.com

Photo via neneo / Shutterstock.com

Gay marriage was never on the agenda at the recent Bishops’ Synod on the Family and the subject “did not cross our minds,” Pope Francis said in a new headline-grabbing interview.

Keeping to a format that has become a favorite for this pope, Francis used a high-profile interview to shed light on his thinking, and Vatican policies, on a number of hot-button social issues.

In an interview published Dec. 7, Francis told the Argentine daily, La Nacion, that the Catholic Church must help parents support  their gay children. At the same time, he maintained that allowing, condoning or even adapting to same-sex marriage was still not on the church’s agenda.

This was one of several controversial issues he broached in the interview with papal biographer Elisabetta Pique:

The cover of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope,” by A

The cover of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope,” by Austen Ivereigh. Photo via Henry Holt / RNS.

Was there a secret plot to elect Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio at the papal conclave last year?

Did Bergoglio — who became Pope Francis at that conclave — give the go-ahead to such a plan?

And does that campaign call his election, and his papacy, into question?

Such questions might sound like plot twists to a new Vatican thriller by Dan Brown, but they are actually the latest talking points promoted by some Catholic conservatives upset with the direction that Francis is leading the church.

The furor stems from a behind-the-scenes account of the March 2013 conclave, presented in a new book about Francis titled “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.”

In the last chapter of the biography, which focuses on Bergoglio’s early life in Argentina and career as a Jesuit, author Austen Ivereigh delivers an insider account of how a group of cardinals who wanted a reformer pope quietly sought to rally support for Bergoglio in the days leading up to the conclave.

Scenes from Genesis: the creation of the world.Photo via © Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC-BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons/RNS.

Pope Francis on Oct. 27 waded into the controversial debate over the origins of human life, saying the big bang theory did not contradict the role of a divine creator, but even required it.

The pope was addressing the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which gathered at the Vatican to discuss “Evolving Concepts of Nature.”

“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” Francis said.

“He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.”

Francis said the beginning of the world was not “a work of chaos” but created from a principle of love. He said sometimes competing beliefs in creation and evolution could co-exist.

Swiss guards proceed out of St. Peter’s Basilica on March 12, 2013, at the Vatican. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini/RNS.

They say you can feast like a king, and now you can eat like a pope after a young chef from the Vatican’s Swiss Guards published a cookbook featuring the favorite recipes of Pope Francis and his predecessors.

David Geisser, 24, who joined the elite Vatican security corps only a month ago, released his book, titled “Buon Appetito,” in Rome on Oct. 21.

The cookbook includes recipes for Francis’ favorite dishes, such as empanadas; roast sirloin, known as “colita de cuadril”; and “dulce de leche,” a milk-based Argentinian dessert that began appearing on Vatican dining tables when the archbishop of Buenos Aires was elected pope last year.

But it also features one of St.  John Paul II’s favorite dishes, Polish pierogi, or stuffed dumplings, and Bavarian delicacies favored by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Pope Benedict XVI leaves Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Photo via Paul Haring/Catholic News Service.

Eight years ago this Sept. 12, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a lecture at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria in which he seemed to diagnose Islam as a religion inherently flawed by fanaticism.

It was an undiplomatic assertion, to say the least — especially coming a day after the 9/11 anniversary — and it sparked an enormous outcry among Muslims and came to be seen as one of a series of missteps that would plague Benedict’s papacy until he resigned last year.

Now, with the Islamic State on the march in the Middle East, leaving a trail of horrifying brutality and bloodshed that has shocked the world, some of Benedict’s allies on the Catholic right are saying, in effect, “He told you so.”

“Regensburg was not so much the work of a professor or even a pope,” wrote the Rev. Raymond de Souza in a column for the National Catholic Register, a conservative publication. “It was the work of a prophet.”

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C. RNS photo: Shareef Sarhan/Catholic Relief Services

The day before a newly-elected Pope Francis was to be formally installed at the Vatican in 2013, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica when he passed out at the altar and had to be rushed to the hospital.

It was a scary moment, and especially odd to see McCarrick stricken; even at 82, the energetic former archbishop of Washington always had a reputation as one of the most peripatetic churchmen in the Catholic hierarchy.

Doctors in Rome quickly diagnosed a heart problem – McCarrick would eventually get a pacemaker – and the cardinal was soon back at his guest room in the U.S. seminary in Rome when the phone rang. It was Francis. The two men had known each other for years, back when the Argentine pope was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires. McCarrick assured Francis that he was doing fine.

“I guess the Lord isn’t done with me yet,” he told the pope.

“Or the devil doesn’t have your accommodations ready!” Francis shot back with a laugh.

A statue of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. RNS photo by David Gibson

When Pope Francis canonizes Popes John XXIII and John Paul II on Sunday, Catholics across the spectrum will have reason to cheer: Liberals credit John with opening the church to the modern world in the 1960s, and conservatives hail John Paul as reasserting orthodoxy after too many innovations.

But the unprecedented double-barreled canonization also raises a question that might give both sides pause: Why is Rome making saints of almost every modern pontiff after nearly a millennium when almost no popes were canonized?

In the first 500 years of Christianity, the Apostle Peter (considered the first pope by tradition) and 47 of his 48 papal successors were viewed as saints, mainly because so many of them were martyred, which is the simplest route to canonization. Another 30 popes were named saints in the next 500 years, largely based on their reputation for sanctity.

Eric J. Lyman 03-07-2014

Pope John Paul II participates in a procession in August 2000. RNS file photo courtesy Universal Press Syndicate.

Pope John Paul II won’t officially become a saint until a special high-profile ceremony next month at the Vatican. But the man who succeeded him says he has seen him in that light for years.

“The reality that John Paul II was a saint became increasingly apparent to me in the years I worked together with him,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in an interview published Friday in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

The Polish pontiff “did not ask for applause and never looked troubled when he was making difficult decisions,” Benedict said. “He acted in accord with his faith and beliefs, and he was willing to endure blows against him. I could and should not imitate him, but I did try to continue his legacy and his mission the best way I could.”

Pope Francis passes news photographers in St. Peter’s Square. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

When cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel a year ago to choose a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, a frail 85-year-old who had become the first pope in six centuries to resign, many of them had one non-negotiable for the next pontiff: that he not be over 70 years old.

So what did the cardinals do? They elected 76-year-old Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina — a man who had part of a lung removed in his 20s and who today “walks kind of crookedly,” as a former aide once put it, because he wears orthopedic shoes to help alleviate chronic lower back pain.

All in all, though, Pope Francis, now 77, seems to be doing quite well at the one-year mark of his papacy, despite maintaining a nonstop pace of liturgies, meetings, public appearances, and hours of prayer throughout a day that starts before 5 a.m.

“He eats works, it’s true,” said the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest — like Francis — who conducted a book-length interview with the pope last year and knows him well.

Pope Benedict XVI leaves Christmas Eve Mass in 2012. RNS photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

As the anniversary of his surprising resignation approaches, Pope Benedict XVI has rejected as “simply absurd” the speculation that he was forced to step down, and he said he still wears the distinctive white papal cassock for “purely practical reasons.”

“At the moment of my resignation there were no other clothes available,” Benedict wrote in a brief letter to an Italian journalist that was published on Wednesday.

The emeritus pope also said that he kept the name Benedict, rather than reverting to his birth name of Joseph Ratzinger, because it was a simple solution.

Pope Benedict XVI at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in 2008. RNS file photo by Jin Lee/Staten Island Advance

When Pope Benedict XVI officially left the Vatican in a helicopter a year ago this week, becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to resign, many in his conservative fan base were aghast, even angry.

He has betrayed us, said those who thought Benedict’s papacy would be the final triumph of old-school Catholicism. He has undermined the papacy itself, they worried. Lightning even struck the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica hours after Benedict departed, surely a bad omen.

Rumors that he was suffering from a terminal illness were taken as gospel truth. After all, what else could explain Benedict’s unorthodox decision to abandon the Throne of St. Peter?

Hundreds of bishops and cardinals look on as Pope Francis formally appoints 19 new cardinals. RNS photo: David Gibson

Pope Francis created his first batch of new cardinals on Saturday and used the ceremony to launch a new appeal for peace amid the violence racking so many countries.

Francis focused his remarks on the plight of Christians, but in an extemporaneous addition to his prepared text he also called on the church “to fight any discrimination” and “exclusion.”

“The church needs your compassion, especially at this time of pain and suffering for so many countries throughout the world,” Francis told the 18 new cardinals who were present in St. Peter’s Basilica, along with hundreds of other cardinals and bishops whose colorful vestments and diverse origins offered a grand tableau of global Catholicism.

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