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Current Affairs

One Month on, Pope's Plans Still Unknown

Since taking office last month, Pope Benedict XVI has worked hard to reassure and stabilize the Catholic church. However, while following his predecessor's line so far, questions remain about his own future plans.

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Pope Benedict XVI has yet to stamp his own identity on the papacy

A month into his pontificate, Benedict XVI has confirmed the broad diplomatic and theological lines of his predecessor John Paul II but has left few clues as to how he intends to make his own mark as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Once-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, known for his conservative stance as the Vatican's guardian of dogma, Pope Benedict has concentrated since his election on April 19 on reassuring and coming to grips with the Church and public opinion before presenting his own vision of the future.

"My real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord," the 78-year-old Benedict XVI said at his inauguration mass.

Hints at future plans but no concrete action as yet

Der neue Papst Benedikt XVI. grüßt und segnet die Gläubigen in Rom

The pope has nonetheless given hints into which issues he plans to address: opening ties with communist China, engaging in ecumenical dialogue, pursuing improved relations with Jews and dialogue with Islam and other religions.

Many are now waiting to see whether these initial declarations of intent will turn into concrete action.

Contacts between the Vatican and Beijing have multiplied since the death of Polish-born John Paul II, but they have been led by the Rome-based Catholic community of Sant'Egidio and will eventually have to be taken over by the diplomats of the Holy See. There are no formal ties between China and the Vatican city-state.

Regarding Christian unity, the pope can also benefit from the recent rapprochement between Catholic and Anglican theologians on Marian practices, which have divided the Churches for 500 years.

But the true test will be whether he is able to improve ties with Russia's Orthodox Church, which John Paul II was unable to achieve before his death on April 2.

Reconciliation work to continue

Testament des Papstes Johannes Paul II, Rabbi Elio Toaff

Emeritus Chief Rabbi of Rome Elio Toaff is seen greeting Pope John Paul II after a concert in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, on Jan. 17, 2004.

German-born Benedict XVI has vowed to pursue the work of reconciliation with Judaism launched by Pope John Paul, and plans a historic visit to the synagogue of Cologne when he travels to the German city of the World Youth Days in August.

In just a month in office, the pope can already count at least one success: improving his image as a stern Vatican watchdog.

According to a poll published in Italy's La Repubblica daily Tuesday, 78 percent of Italians have a good opinion of the pope, although they do not expect him to carry out the changes they wish to see in the Church's positions on contraception, abortion and assisted procreation.

Hard line still in evidence

Papst Benedikt mit Kreuz

The new pope has in fact reaffirmed the Church's insistence on the sacred nature of all human life from conception to natural death, calling abortion murder and indicating that the "preservation of life" would be a central theme of his pontificate.

He has also underlined the Catholic Church's universal vocation to break through the barriers of racism and class divisions and cross the borders between peoples -- key themes of the Church's progressive wing.

In addressing all these issues, the pope has repeatedly evoked his human fragility as "simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord."

Benedict coming to terms with public persona

Coming after the 26-year rule of charismatic and media-savvy John Paul II, Benedict XVI appears to be a reserved man. Although he seems to be relaxing as the weeks go by in his contact with the faithful, Vatican observers consider him more of an intellectual pope than outgoing political figure.

The pope has distanced himself from more popular forms of piety encouraged by John Paul II, although he seemingly gave in to popular pressure to skip a five-year wait before launching the beatification procedure for Pope John Paul.

Contrary to his predecessor, for example, Benedict XVI has chosen not to preside over all beatification ceremonies.

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