VATICAN CITY — With fresh fighting in the Holy Land and the global economy in ever-deeper crisis, Pope Benedict XVI starts 2009 with poverty and war among his most urgent concerns.
Those issues also loom large in his agenda for the coming year. Among the major events on the papal calendar:
— Benedict will make his first trip to Africa as pope this March, when he visits Angola and Cameroon. The pope has designated 2009 as the “Year of Africa,” to underscore the Catholic Church’s growing presence on the continent, and to address the disease, deprivation and military conflict plaguing the region.
In Africa, Benedict is bound to follow up on his previous calls for economic development and peace-making, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a civil war has left an estimated 5.4 million people dead since 1998. The pope may also address inter-religious tensions between Christianity and the continent’s other fast-spreading faith, Islam.
— A planned (though still-unconfirmed) papal trip to Israel this spring would mark the resolution of a longstanding diplomatic dispute between Israel and the Holy See over the tax and legal status of church properties in the land of Jesus’ birth.
The visit could also assuage Catholic-Jewish tensions over the record of Pope Pius XII, whom the Vatican is considering for sainthood.
Critics say Pius, who reigned during World War II, failed to say or do all he could to stop the Nazi genocide of the Jews.
Benedict would presumably follow a precedent set by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in 2000 by paying a visit to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, where an exhibit critical of Pius has drawn Vatican protests.
According to high-level Catholic and Israeli sources quoted in recent press reports, Benedict’s trip has been set for May. But those plans were thrown into serious doubt on Saturday (Jan. 3), when Israel launched a ground invasion of the neighboring Gaza Strip in retaliation for rocket attacks launched from the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory.
Benedict has called for a cease-fire in Gaza, most recently on Sunday (Jan. 4), when he said that events there “show how the refusal of dialogue leads to situations that weigh unspeakably on peoples (who are) once again victims of hatred and war.”
— Economic justice, globalization, and protection of the natural environment are likely to be prominent topics of Benedict’s long-awaited encyclical on Catholic social teaching.
Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican office most deeply involved in preparation of the document, told reporters last October to expect it by the end of 2008. Its failure to appear on time may reflect a need to revise the encyclical in response to recent turbulence in the global economy.
Benedict has commented on the current economic troubles several times in recent months, most recently on New Year’s Day, when he called the crisis in the financial markets an opportunity to rethink the world’s “dominant model of development.”
Deep economic change is necessary, the pope said, in order to address poverty, health epidemics, military conflict, ecological damage, and “above all, a cultural and moral crisis whose symptoms have long been evident in every part of the world.”
The answer, Benedict said, lies in “global solidarity…harmonizing the potentialities of the market with those of civil society, with constant respect for law and aiming always at the common good.”
— Benedict’s first meeting with President-elect Barack Obama could occur as soon as July, when Obama is expected to attend a meeting of leaders from the Group of Eight (G8) major industrialized nations in the Italian region of Sardinia.
The pope will not attend the Sardinia event, but Obama could follow the precedent set by President Bush, who in 2001 followed a G8 meeting in Genoa with a visit to John Paul II at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, outside Rome.
Economic and geopolitical matters, including the precarious status of Christian minorities in the Middle East, would be among the most likely topics of discussion between president and pope. Benedict would also be likely to raise the subjects of abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research, which the Catholic Church opposes and Obama supports.
By FRANCIS X. ROCCA
c. 2009 Religion News Service
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