A Pope who is a “soloist”

Italian journalist Luigi Accattoli has an an interesting piece, "La solitudine di Ratzinger" in Liberal (3 March).

The great Fabrizio has done a translation, which I touched here and there.

Pope Ratzinger’s solitude

Dear editor-in-chief, this is the right week to wonder about Pope Benedict’s future, since he’s having a week of rest from the relentless public activity for Spiritual Exercises of Lent. His tomorrows are made of a packed schedule: he’s preparing his travel to the Holy Land, rewriting his encyclical on social doctrine from scratch, he’s extremely busy recovering Lefebvrians. These are three courageous deeds he undertakes as a solo voyage with the boldness of a soloist pope.

I call him a “soloist” as a homage to his passion for music but also because the definition of “solitary” is not suitable for a Pope. He dines alone often and spends lengthy hours studying and reflecting. In today’s Vatican there is no longer that special Polish court of friends working as a buffer between the Pope and the Curia, which characterized Pope Wojtyla’s pontificate and somewhat helped him to bear the solitude of the Supreme Keys. From the point of view of the Papal daily schedule we’re back to the sober routine of few qualified friends admitted, as was for Paul VI and the love for prayerful and reflective reservedness of Pius XII

Of course Benedict doesn’t lacks curial company but it must be said that he – despite the longest curial experience a pope ever did as a cardinal: no less than 23 years –  he doesn’t rely much on his staff. He sends for them when needed, but he tends to tackle the issues he perceives as decisive personally.

To get to the point we can say with enough confidence that he is truly alone – both as a feeling and in reality – before those three challenges we mentioned above – the mission to the Holy Land, the encyclical and the Lefebvrians – just as he chose to be alone in the past, when he had to face the problem of Islam, the tragedy of pedophile priests and the current one of negation of the Shoah. You could say that in those three instances he benefited from his solitude and one can only wish that the same happens with the new issues awaiting him right beyond the corner. We know that prior to the day he delivered it no one of his aides had read the Regensburg lecture – with which he posed the problem of violence in Islam without diplomatic precautions. In equal solitude – during the visits to the USA and Australia last may and June – he stated that he felt “ashamed” for the counter-witness of pedophile priests. Alone did he come to decide to lift the excommunication of the four Lefebvrian bishops, thus find himself to face – in solitude – the storm from within and from without that followed.

He was then intrepidly alone in his choice to schedule the trip to the Holy Land for the half of may, having it announced when there was still no new government (as there isn’t one yet) in Israel, with the Palestinian territories in a complete mayhem and a situation of war more than peace in the whole Middle East. Nobody doubts Pope Wojtyla was a bold man – even a gutsy one – yet he didn’t dare visit the Holy Land until he got a green light by a Barak administration totally in control of the situation and an Arafat who was about – or so we all believed – to proclaim the Palestinian state.

Yet an even greater boldness must be seen in his intention to publish a social encyclical as soon as possible – next spring or summer. It was ready by last summer, but the Pope is now rewriting it to consider the economic crisis becoming rampant worldwide. Benedict is actually not alone on this one. As a matter of fact the idea of the encyclical didn’t even start as  his own, but had come from the inputs of the pre-conclave and then was presented again by the offices of the Curia to honor the forty anniversary of Paul VI’s Populorum progressio (1967). The theologian-pope grew fond of this encyclical he was working on as the crisis was beginning to unfold. Last October 6 he made to know that he was pondering the crisis like a theologian, at the opening of the Synod of Bishops when – commenting on Psalm 118 « your Word is as stable as the heavens ») he contrasted the divine “stability” to the uncertainty of fortune based on money: “We can see this now with the fall of large banks: this money disappears, it is nothing.” He touched again on this subject last Thursday in a conversation with Rome’s  parish priests and disclosed the difficulties he finds himself in to craft a document of social Magisterium in the uncertainty of all things.

“We have been long working on an encyclical on these matters” he said, confessing how it “difficult” it can be to speak of the problem “with competence” and at the same time “with a great ethical awareness”.  The difficulty lies in denouncing “courageously, but also concretely” the “fundamental errors that revealed themselves in the fall of large American banks” and in indicating what to do “concretely”  to “change the situation. It’s about denouncing no less than an economy founded on the “rule of egoism” – another expression of his – and indicating the way to get out of that and do it today, while nobody knows where the crisis will lead us and what kind of world will result from it! Never before had the social Magisterium of the Church run such a great risk, that of speaking amid the storm.

A Pope who decides alone and tackles great challenges without rhetoric runs this risk. If he relied on his aides, they would talk him out of exposing himself just like they tried to keep him form the travel to the Holy Land. So far his unarmed method has helped him score good points on various fronts. It’s the advantage of a soloist Pope who deals with piano scores never seen before by inviting the faithful to pray “that I may not flee for fear of the wolves” as he said in the Mass for the opening of the Pontificate

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Ed Francis says:

    “Benedict is actually not alone on this one” –

    The Pope, it can be said, is never alone, nor are we, in Christ, but there are so many lost in the world, who Pope Benedict recognizes as “victims” of drugs, human trafficking, globalization, or failed evangelization.

    That our Pope is impelled to publish a social encyclical is perfectly in keeping with his enacted beliefs; that he would choose to do so, perhaps without “consultation,” points to his integrity and trust.

    We should be so “alone” as our Pope Benedict XVI. We’d know, better then, that we aren’t alone at all.

  2. Diane says:

    I couldn’t help but think about our bishops when I read this and how they might not flee from the wolves if they were to act on prayer rather than advisory boards.

  3. Alessandro says:

    Viva Papa Benedetto!

  4. teresa says:

    I love and respect our Holy Father.

    And I will accompany him with my prayers.

  5. Bryan says:

    I think what we’re seeing here, with our Holy Father:

    1. Having spent 20-something years in the Curia, more than anyone, he KNOWS that the bureaucracy can stifle any progress (like the old saw: if ‘pro’ is the opposite of ‘con’, the opposite of progress is…..) that a Pope wants. Endless meetings, discussion, consultations, position papers, opinions to consider, etc. Benedict enjoys full, immediate, and universal power over the Church, so, he really doesn’t NEED anyone to consult with.

    2. More than many who could have been selected by the Holy Spirit, I wonder if there is anyone in the Curia that is his equal intellectually or spiritually. Every day, I am more and more impressed by this gentle man, whose teachings, dissertations, and outlook on all issues is so well developed, that I don’t think that the factotums wandering around could improve on what he has to say.

    3. He’s the Pope. While he only enjoys the charism of infallibility when speaking ex cathedra, one can not but wonder whether with great responsibility (being responsible as the shepherd and as the Vicar of Christ for 1+ BILLION souls) also comes graces of great insight that lesser ranks don’t enjoy.

    4. All his writings, from his days in university as a professor, through his days in CDF, to his writings as Pope all point to a towering theologian, sensitive priest, and personally holy man. His words carry ‘gravitas’, while still touching hearts with their common sense and pastoral (in the best way) care.

    God grant him many more years in the Barque of Peter.

  6. david says:

    Anche io Decco, VIVA IL PAPA….

  7. Andrew, UK and sometimes Canada says:

    This piece does nothing but increase my growing love for this pope, only the second I have known in my lifetime. His solitude is truly a gift that allows him to find his answer in prayer and meditation. And still, he is always described as warm and pastoral when meeting people. He does, indeed, have magnificient courage to tackle such issues by himself.

    There is also, however, a tinge of sadness to this piece because I have a mental image of the isolated pope eating his meals in solitude and facing the storms of our times without any comfort but the love of God. This love should be enough, I know, but that is why he is pope and I am not.

  8. Chris M says:

    Ed Francis, I was thinking the same thing. He is in and with Christ and the Holy Spirit guides his actions. He is less alone than most of us!

  9. jacques says:

    In my opinion the wolves that Benedict has to fight first are inside the Church.
    They never were so numerous in the Church’s history as in the present time.

  10. Matt Q says:

    God bless our Pope. He is on the right track and I’m glad he’s not worried about human respect. It’s also quite understandable he eats alone. After being obligated to be around people day long, what a relief to eat in peace. Pius XII did the same thing.

  11. Most Excellent Sledgehammer says:

    One wonders if everyone is not turning the preferences of John Paul II (constantly around people, incredibly social, consulting on everything) into absolute necessities to be pope. As noted above, Pius XII was known to seek out solitude. We have to realize that, although John Paul II was a wonderful pope, the preferences of the pope will change with the pope. That does not make him any less fit for the papacy.

    Benedict is not John Paul and we must cease this insane attempt to compare the two!

  12. Sarah L says:

    I concur with the Sledgehammer’s remark that we should not expect BXVI to share JPII’s outgoing temperament. Dining and studying alone for hours a day are the mark of an introverted personality. Some people are energized by social interaction; introverts find it exhausting and need “alone time” to recharge.
    Still, we introverts(for I am one), should be conscious of the fact that our solitude or shyness is not mistaken for aloof superiority. Left-leaning observers would likely interpret the Holy Father’s solitude as self-righteous independence, not moral courage.

  13. That’s a very good article. I personally like the style of Pope Benedict. But whether we like his style or not, we should all support him with our prayers.

  14. Bryan says:

    Fr. Ho:

    After every Rosary, I do. One Pater, one Ave, one Gloria.

    We would all do well to do so.

  15. Mike says:

    The Holy Father’s autonomous nature is a great attribute – he’s someone who won’t be held hostage to people’s opinions, but only God’s will!

    However, I can’t help feeling a balance needs to be found between being a ‘soloist’ and occasionally heeding advice. After all, haven’t the people around the Holy Father been put there by God too?

  16. Irish says:

    I’ve just read on other blogs that Germany is mulling over the idea of issuing EU arrest warrants for Bishop WIlliamson and that Cardinal Mahony has “banned” Bishop Williamson from entering any Catholic church, school or other facility (can he even do that?).

    Is this how the tribulation begins?

    We must double our efforts praying for the Holy Father.

  17. Timothy Clint says:

    In the next to the last paragraph it reads “We have been long working….”. I believe the Popes of the past always used we instead of I presumably to show his speaking and teaching in union with the will of Christ and the Holy Ghost. Seems to me the Holy Father is burning the the flax, though symbolicly, as in the old Coronation rite while the choir intoned “Sic transit gloria mundi”. Here passes the glory of the world.

  18. Katrina says:

    This Pope is neither introverted nor lonely. He is a scholar, a thinker and a man of prayer. All these things require solitude. The Pope is neither alone nor lonely; he has a gift for friendship and has close non-hierarchical friends. Do not feel sorry for him but pray that he may have the health and strength to keep going.

  19. mark says:

    Seems that either you’re in or you’re out with Our Holy Father. Human respect? Bah Humbug! Here is a Pope who can see that ‘time is short’. Did the Holy Spirit not know what He was doing when Benedict was chosen? The right man for the right time. Good on yer Papa!! Interestingly enough, does Ratzinger’s comments and actions not draw out the rats.

  20. Nick P says:

    It is hard to walk alone, but he also walks with God

    Oh Soverign Pontiff, stand strong for the Church, and your rewards will be great, in the life to come

    Deo Gratias

  21. Herbert says:

    I have respect for this Pope who is courageous and bold. Above all he realizes that he is accountable to God alone. Hence with this in mind I opined that he is bolder to do what he needs to do. After all he is accountable to God and not to secular men who have no respect for God. Why do we believe in the secular media? we should support our Pope. We should not be conform to the values of this world.

  22. “Is this how the tribulation begins?”

    It’s possible.

  23. shadrach says:

    The tribulation began in the garden of Eden. Williamson’s problems are nothing really and self-inflicted. Forget him. Pray for the Pope and especially for his safety in the Holy Land.

  24. Gloria says:

    God bless this extraordinary Pope and protect him from wolves of all breeds.

  25. little gal says:

    This is a scholar and priest with tremendous intellectual gifts, intuition, powers of observation and spiritual depth. And, his musical studies have trained him in approaching a problem in different ways(which functions as input)…for example, I recall being taught that the way to learn how to play a difficult passage of music is to make it more difficult.

    Benedict is also clearly someone who is comfortable with being alone by temperament and may even embrace it due to his current ‘assignment.’ I read once that some folks recharge by experiencing solitude and others need exactly the opposite–lots of social interaction. I would like to add that for an 80 year old, he is incredibly bold!

  26. MargaretC says:

    I agree with Bryan and The Most Excellent Sledgehammer. Introverts are often very independent thinkers, and I can see that reflected in the Holy Father’s career to date.

    Let us pray that his journeys to Africa and the Holy Land will be safe and fruitful.

  27. Bruce says:

    “Evil draws its power from indecision and concern for what other people think”

    Pope Benedict XVI
    GOOD FRIDAY 2005

  28. Dimas says:

    Viva o Papa!!!! Bento XIV we love and admire you!!!

  29. Dimas says:

    “Viva o Papa! Bento XIV we love and admire you” -> I’ve made a mistake.I meant: Bento XVI we love and admire you!

  30. Make me a Spark says:

    THAT is so awesome. To me that really says that he is truly a man after God’s own heart and no other. I would rather see him seek the face of God than any other counselor.

    It makes me proud to be a Catholic.

  31. Dino says:

    As age sometimes plays trick on memory, I could be wrong, but have not other Popes dined alone? Why do some people seem to be obsessing about this?
    Let His Holiness relax over some good saurbraten and wash it down with Augutiner, Paulaner, or maybe an Ayinger.

  32. Antonio says:

    ¡Viva el Papa! Also in spanish.

  33. Ryan says:

    \”Jesus often draws apart to pray in solitude, on a mountain, preferably at night\” (CCC 2602; cf. Mk 1:35; 6:46; Lk 5:16.).

    \”But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you\” (Mt 6:6).

    May the Holy Spirit guide and protect our Holy Father!

  34. John Enright says:

    I’m comfortable knowing that our Holy Father is a “soloist.” After all, Christ gave the keys to St. Peter, not the rest of the Apostles.

  35. Giulio Vian says:

    Link is broken, now the article is at http://www.liberal.it/2009/03/accattoli_2009-03-03.aspx

  36. chironomo says:

    A man who is constantly surrounded by “friends” and “advisors” might simply be surrounded by those who are keeping an eye on him for their own reasons. Some of the greatest decisions in the world have been made in solitude.

  37. Chris M says:

    “They never were so numerous in the Church’s history as in the present time.”

    It may make you feel better to read some more Church history! There were at least two long periods of time where things were MUCH worse than now. Yes, we have some insidious challenges today, but it’s no worse than anything the Church has faced down and beaten before.

  38. henri says:

    I suggest we start a campaign to send to the Holy Father an email with the same subject in the subject line but telling him he is not alone and that we support him and are thinking and praying for him. Thoughts?

  39. Nancy says:

    I can’t help but think that God has simply sent the Church the leader She needs at this time in history. I have such respect for this man and for the very difficult job he must perform. He will be in my prayers every day.

  40. I am not Spartacus says:

    I have full confidence that God will protect this great and Holy man and I am even more confident that God has chosen him to lead the resurrection and restoration of Catholicism worldwide.

    Pope Benedict going to the Israel? He will be protected just like Pope Leo the Great was when he rode out to have a chin-wag with Atilla the Hun.

    Our Church will become a lot smaller but much stronger.

    The wolves, IMO, are Bishops who either oppose orthodoxy or are too fearful to do their duty to Teach, Rule, and Sanctify. And I think one of the strongest contributors to the fearfulness of our Ordinaries is that the Govt holds their purse strings.

    The old quip that Judas was the first Bishop to receive Govt funding is worth remembering.

  41. Members of my TLM community are praying a perpetual novena for Pope Benedict’s support and protection. The novena posted in Latin and English at


    was initiated by the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter.

  42. William of the Old says:

    You can join your prayers and offerings to the Holy Father with this Spiritual Bouquet that will be “personally presented to him” at :http://www.institute-christ-king.org/bouquet/

  43. Dr. Eric says:

    The members of the Institute of Christ the King prayed before and after Mass for the Holy Father. (I went to my 2nd EF Mass ever last night, WOW!)

  44. Rob Piccoli says:

    It’s a powerful portrait of a courageous man. Thanks for sharing it in English too. Luigi Accattoli is one of my favorite writers and an excellent vaticanist.
    I took the liberty of linking to your post from my blog. Greetings from Italy!

  45. Maureen says:

    Speaking as an introvert, this kind of behavior isn’t necessarily bold or clever. People tend to freak out about the simplest things that have to be done, running around like chickens with their heads cut off. So the best thing to do is to cut off the part of the freaking out that comes before the thing is done, by not letting those poor people who are susceptible to freaking know what you are planning to do. It’s kinder, really, but it also spares you a lot of trouble and talk that doesn’t change or accomplish anything.

  46. irishgirl says:

    Good article.

    I pray for our Holy Father everyday in my Rosary. And I’m also offering my sufferings (physical, mental and spiritual) for him this Lent.

    Viva il Papa! The ‘little people’ love you!

  47. Thomas says:

    I couldn’t help but think of the “solitudo Christi” while reading this post. Christ too was alone, very alone, during the most important moments of His life. Perhaps the Holy Father has grasped the importance of what you might call the sanctifying power of solitude; just like the great monks and hermits of old. Maybe this “holy solitude” actually disposes the Holy Father to fulfilling his mission as the Successor of Peter in a more perfect way — rather than contradicting it, as some seem to think it would.

  48. Mary Conces says:

    As I was reading this illuminating article, I could not help taking a mental stance that might be crudely expressed as “Praying for Pope; praying for Pope”. To me, the Holy Father is a hero, besides being a brilliant, focussed, prayerful scholar. Solitude would be necessary for maintaining those qualities. (I hope he gets in an occasional nap, too.)
    Thank you, Henry Edwards for the beautiful Novena–perfect in length and content for the daily prayers Father Z keeps reminding us to do for the Pope.

  49. Marilee says:

    Dear Pope Benedict XVI, you have our prayers always.
    God’s Divine Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. A man after God’s heart will always be in the right path. A pope chosen by God during this time of Trials and Tribulations.Pope Benedict XVI is the strength of the Church of Jesus Christ. Soloist? NO! Inspiring, YES! Example of True Apostle of Jesus Christ.God bless him and keep him strong, healthy in mind, spirit and body.

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