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A Less Dramatic Approach to Prayer

Pope Benedict XVI's Devotions Lack the Large Gestures of John Paul II, Observers Say

By Jim Remsen
Knight Ridder
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page B09

Lost in all the attention given to how Pope Benedict XVI will address the hot-button issues facing Roman Catholicism is his approach to what his predecessor termed "the pope's first duty" -- prayer.

Many Catholics look to their pontiff not only as a moral guide but also as a spiritual model. So central is this "witness of prayer" that Pope John Paul II called it "the first condition of [a pope's] service to the church and the world."

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The new pontiff is certainly a man of prayer, of radiant prayer, cardinals and others who know him say. But don't expect him to be in the mold of John Paul, who was known for large gestures: prostrating himself on the floor, groaning in petitionary prayer, suddenly hooding his eyes in private prayer during meetings.

"This pope is a much more retiring type," the Rev. Joseph Fessio said of Benedict, a longtime friend. "He is not one who makes evident his interior devotion."

Fessio is editor in chief of Ignatius Press, which published collections of Benedict's homilies when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He said the pope's spiritual anchor was the conventional group liturgies of the church, particularly the Mass.

"When you are with him and celebrate Mass, you realize you are entering a holy place," Fessio said. "It is deeply quiet and profoundly respectful. . . . I try to say the same words [of the liturgy], but it doesn't come out the same. I try to convey the same feeling but don't. His personal devotion radiates."

Benedict was born in 1927 to pious parents named Mary and Joseph. His birth came on Holy Saturday morning, the day before Easter, and his mother took him to their Bavarian church to be baptized that day.

"He says, 'I was born into the paschal [Easter] mystery and have always nourished it through liturgical prayer,' " Fessio related.

As Benedict recounts in "Salt of the Earth," a 1996 book published by Ignatius Press, his parents bought him his first missal, the book of Mass prayers, when he was a second-grader.

"It was actually terribly exciting to penetrate into the mysterious world of the Latin liturgy and to find out what was actually happening, what it meant, what was being said," the future pontiff states. He says it began "a voyage of discovery."

Also, like John Paul before him, Benedict has "a great devotion to the Blessed Mother" Mary and "a love for the rosary," Fessio said. He recalled meetings at which Benedict would pause at noon so they could pray the Angelus, a traditional "Hail Mary" prayer.

Saint Joseph is the pope's patron saint.

"Joseph was always a quiet, strong presence who was giving support to Mary and the infant Jesus, and I think he sees himself as supporting the church in the same way," Fessio said.

Benedict's bent is to traditional group prayer, and his writings suggest that he is leery of mystical prayer practices in which individuals seek direct contact with the divine.

In a document, "Some Aspects of Christian Meditation," then-Cardinal Ratzinger warned against contemplative practices that try to "overcome the distance separating creature from Creator, as though there ought not be such a distance." Man "is essentially a creature, and remains such for eternity, so that an absorbing of the human self into the divine self is never possible."

Benedict "has the church's prayer be the framework for his life," Fessio said. Like many priests, he prays the cycle of daily prayers known as the Divine Office "as a traditional way of concentrating the whole day on the Lord. The whole day is liturgically oriented."

It demonstrates, he said, that Benedict has transcended his ego "and his own self and become one with the church as the body of Christ."

Does Benedict pray in private?

"He doesn't talk about it, but I'm sure he does," Fessio said. "He couldn't have his depth and his serenity without it."

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