Interview With Editor of Essay Collection on Pope's First 5 Years

WASHINGTON, D.C., OCT. 6, 2010 ( When one opens "Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on His Papacy," two elements immediately jump out.

First, there's a wide variety of people who offered personal or scholarly reflections on this Pope: His own secretary of state provided the first introduction, but King Abdullah of Jordan and President Shimon Peres of Israel penned the following pages.

And the second eye-catcher? The pictures. Page after page of glossy prints reflect Benedict XVI in countless settings: smiling, scholarly, prayerful. Surrounded by his brother priests, or flanked by leaders of other creeds in their religious garb. Embraced by children and world leaders alike.

According to the editor of the work, this 224-page volume is a recording of some of the most extraordinary accomplishments of just five years -- spanning from 2005, when the Holy Father was elected, to this year.

ZENIT spoke with Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, about the book and the Pope it portrays.

ZENIT: What is the aim of a book such as this?

Sister Walsh: The book records the extraordinary accomplishments of the first five years of Pope Benedict's reign. These early years have been full of inspired teachings on faith, hope, and love and on key events including war in the Middle East, environmental challenges, and the explosion of technology in the new millennium. There have been moments of triumph, such as his well received visit to the United States; moments of tension, such as his visit to Regensburg, in Bavaria, where he once taught; poignant moments such as his visit to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz; and moments of pain, such as his meetings with persons who have suffered from sexual abuse by clergy.

ZENIT: How did you decide what to focus on in the pontificate?

Sister Walsh: We identified key themes of the papacy, and the photos, essays and reflections combine to illuminate issues and teachings under each theme.

One that has been prominent these past five years is the desire to achieve unity, which stands out in several ways. The Pope is reaching especially to Orthodox Christians so that the Eastern and Western “lungs” of Christianity can breathe together again. He has met with the archbishop of Canterbury and the patriarch of Constantinople, for example. He has invited the followers of the schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre to return to the Catholic Church and agreed to welcome groups of Anglicans seeking corporate reunion with Rome.

Another theme is the relevance of faith to contemporary issues, including war -- he thinks the answer to peace lies in religion, especially in the Middle East. He has addressed environmental issues -- he’s called the Green Pope. When he met with American young people at Dunwoodie Seminary in Yonkers, New York, he told them: “The earth itself groans under the weight of consumerist greed and irresponsible exploitation.” He recognizes the growth in technology -- YouTube was invented in 2005, the year he was elected. Four years later he was on it. In Church time, that’s nanoseconds. He is not afraid of technology.

He has shown his concern for the Middle East by personal trips to Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Turkey. His visit to the Holy Land was eight days long. He sends a message of reaching out to others with his trips to Muslim nations and their shrines -- he prayed shoeless beside his Muslim hosts at the Dome of the Rock in Turkey -- he prayed at Jerusalem’s Western Wall -- and honored the memory of Jews at Vad Yashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial.

His three encyclicals are telling. The first, "God is Love," was a very human expression of what God’s love means. He said he was speaking of “the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others.” His second, "On Christian Hope," spoke to a troubled society. “No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering,” he said, but added that with Jesus “there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an 'undoing' of past suffering, a reparation that sets things right.” His third, "Charity in Truth," was a remarkable piece which showed the Church’s relevance to the environment, the economy and other 21st century problems.

ZENIT: The book presents the Pope in three facets: pilgrim, pastor and prophet. Explain the choice of these divisions and the reasoning behind them.

Sister Walsh: These three facets are the essence of the Holy Father's life and work. He is a pilgrim who brings the Good News of Christ to the world through his travels and through his speeches, letters and prayers. He often travels as a pilgrim in the literal sense, visiting sacred shrines and holy places. The section on Benedict as pilgrim covers his support of Africa, China, Europe and the American continental mission; ecumenism and interreligious dialogue; relations with Jews and Muslims; and papal travels such as the 2008 visit to the U.S.

He is a pastor to the world's 1 billion plus Catholics and to other people as well, teaching, guiding and bringing hope and comfort with a compassionate pastoral heart. His role as pastor includes his response to the sexual abuse crisis; encyclicals on hope and love; views on Catholic education and the role of the family; support of young people; liturgical reform and participation in the Eucharist; support of the priesthood, religious life, and vocations; and devotion to the Blessed Virgin and the saints.

He is a prophet whose voice illuminates Scripture and Church tradition and brings truth to bear on a range of current issues, including Catholic social teaching and the encyclical on social charity; views on faith and politics, human rights, justice, war and peace, bioethics, the environment, and immigration, and his use of social media.

ZENIT: Just browsing through the beautiful pictures in this book gives an immediate insight into the "humanity" of this Pope. Whether patting the head of a St. Bernard or blowing out the candle on his birthday cake, the Holy Father is seen to be just like any of us. Is the "humanity" of a Pope difficult to convey?

Sister Walsh: It can be difficult because the Pope is such a revered figure, and a world leader. In the case of Pope Benedict, before he became Pope, he spent the previous 25 years of his career as the guardian of the Church’s deposit of faith. He gained notoriety in that job for reigning in theologians who pushed the envelope too far. So his warm, pastoral side may have come as a surprise to many who thought of him as a brilliant scholar and theologian and "watchdog" of the Church.

After his election papal observers began to see another side: the compassionate father, "Il Papa," as the Italians call the Pope affectionately, and they were pleasantly surprised. They saw him as the pastor who could hold a woman’s hand amid the rubble of the earthquake-stricken town of L’Aquila in Italy.

People thought of Benedict as a teacher in the stratosphere. They discovered that, like the best teachers, he is down to earth. His writings are accessible. His visit to the United States turned into a love fest when warm crowds greeted him at assemblies and in the streets of Washington and New York. The Pope and the people responded to one another. He may be an introvert but people connect with him.

The extraordinary photos give you a glimpse of the man at work, at prayer and at leisure. You see him pastorally interacting with children -- very tender pictures; you see him pensively and intently at prayer, both in his private chapel and alone in a garden. You see him at play -- one I like shows him with St. Bernard dogs. This is a man who appreciates animals. Others show him tenderly touching or holding a child -- he’s grandpa here. The book shows he’s quite human, from his laughter while interacting with young children to his broken wrist on vacation.

ZENIT: As editor, do you have a favorite reflection and/or a favorite photo?

Sister Walsh: Some of the brief anecdotes make me laugh. I like one about his being stopped when he was a cardinal by tourists who wanted him to take their picture in St. Peter’s Square. Do they know their photographer became Pope? I enjoyed the essay by Mar Muñoz Visoso of our staff about the Pope as a pianist and how he relaxes with Mozart. I love the photo of the pope with the China Philharmonic Orchestra and Shanghai Opera House Chorus. The idea of a Chinese symphony playing for the Pope at the Vatican is amazing, given the late 20th century history of the Church in China.

(Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on His Papacy: