First, the new pope is German--and Germany is the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation started in the 16th century by Martin Luther, a German monk. Pope Benedict XVI knows and has worked with Protestants in general, and Lutherans in particular.
Further, in his role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he provided significant leadership, including support for a historically significant document, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Thus document says, in effect, that the past condemnations between Lutherans and Catholics arising out of the Protestant Reformation no longer apply. That agreement between the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation was signed in Augsburg, Germany, on October 31, 1999--traditionally a day marking the Lutheran Reformation.
I'm also hopeful for the new papacy because of the name Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger chose: Benedict XVI. The selection recalls the work of Pope Benedict XV, who served during the era of World War I and was known as a bridge-builder and reconciler. Further, the name harkens back to St. Benedict, founder of Christian monasticism, who is remembered for preserving and seeking to renew Christianity in Western Europe. The "rule" that he wrote provided a basic guide that helped maintain culture and piety in medieval Europe.
Upon the election of Pope Benedict XVI, some critics recalled immediately the declaration, Dominus Iesus, issued in 2000 under his leadership by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The document caused indignation and disappointment among many Protestants. It was seen as having a distancing and punitive tone--different from the documents of Vatican II in regard to other churches.
Obscured in the criticism was the primary focus of "Dominus Iesus." It addressed issues of religious pluralism and the dangers of syncretism, especially in Africa. The point of the document is its witness to Jesus Christ as Lord of the church. Further, the document underscores the saving action of Jesus that takes place through the Holy Spirit.
It is telling that in his first Mass following his election, Pope Benedict XVI pointed to the pursuit of Christian unity, steps to continue the reforms of Vatican II, and efforts in inter-religious dialogue as important themes of his papacy.
The task of "working to reconstitute the full and visible unity of all the followers of Christ" is crucial, he told the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel at that April 20 mass. Speaking of himself, he said, "The new pope knows that his task is to make the light of Christ shine before men and women of the world--not his own light, but that of Christ."
In proclaiming Christ, he will stand against the dangers of secularism and relativism. He will do so in ways that may make some folks uncomfortable. But I hope that faithful believers throughout the world will ponder his words. At the same time, I expect Lutherans to embark on renewed efforts for the deeper practice of unity that is God's gift revealed in the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments.
My prayer is that Lutherans and Roman Catholics will grow in our commitment to being evangelizing churches. We have much to learn from sisters and brothers in Christ in southern hemisphere churches. They give us not only a passion to proclaim Christ but also a model for our understanding of Christian mission.
To be Christians in this world means we must join together in confronting the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the increasing disparities of a globalized economy, the devastation of creation caused by our consumptive living, and the prevention of violence in our homes and between nations.
For such daunting tasks we need to join with other Christians and with people other faiths--and that includes the new pope.