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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Various columnists for this paper already covered the making of a new pope last spring to a fare-thee-well, driving the tormented editor to declare an informal moratorium on writing further copy about the pomp and circumstance surrounding Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's ascension to Benedict XVI.

We complied. So, in general, did the rest of the American print media, which these days, sadly, are trained by watching too much television to ignore anything that doesn't photograph well, or lend itself to colorful video, or where religion is concerned doesn't contain elements of movement and ceremony.

But in recent weeks, I've noticed a few short items creeping onto inside pages about the Holy Father's vision -- predicted here and elsewhere -- of a venerable Roman Catholic Church that more resembles the one of four decades ago instead of a global organization struggling to accept elements of modernity.

Starting the first week in October, a synod of Catholic bishops from around the world will meet in Rome to plot the future of the church under Ratzinger's leadership. A hefty working text has already been prepared for official consideration, and some sections have sporadically leaked to the Vatican press -- enough to suggest that Benedict XVI has no intention of mellowing from the hardrock conservative positions he held in his previous position as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican office tracing its pedigree directly back to the Inquisition.

Bottom line: Pope John XXIII's liberal changes stemming from the Vatican II conclave to take into account this planet's social and cultural and scientific developments not previously sanctioned by Rome are in deep trouble.

There are some key words in the working text that constitute predictable indicators -- some superficial, some profound. The "translations" below are my predictions, not actual descriptions in the Vatican document of suggestions.

Parish priests will be urged to prevent "profane" types of music from being played during Mass. Translation: Lose the guitars, flutes and drums, boys. It's back to Gregorian chants (which are specifically mentioned in the aforesaid text as more appropriate).

The tabernacle, a large container -- usually bejeweled and gold-plated -- which holds the wheat wafer Host that devout Catholics believe is the actual (not representative) body of Christ after consecration, must be given a "prominent" position on the altar instead of the corner or side repository popular after Vatican II. Translation: Altars, with the tabernacle right in the center as unmistakable focal point, will be turned back around to allow the priest to celebrate Mass in relative solitude with his back to the congregation, instead of facing and speaking directly to the faithful as Vatican II decreed.

Lay persons will participate in the Mass only in a "minimal" fashion. Translation: No more reading of Scripture lessons by members of the congregation, or carrying of the wine and water up the aisle to facilitate Holy Communion, or letting the non-ordained help distribute the Eucharist during that sacrament. Priests only, please, just like in the old days.

During "liturgical gatherings," Latin will be relied upon as the universal tongue instead of English and other regional languages. Translation: A return during celebration of Mass to the Latin liturgy, viewed as confusing mumbo-jumbo by many Catholics before Vatican II, cannot be far behind.

Priests should not be "showmen." Translation: All those brave fathers in Central and South America and Africa and elsewhere who have the courage to question corrupt and dictatorial governments, or the temerity to suggest social and cultural reform, will be muzzled.

The working document, by the way, singles out Catholic politicians who support abortion and divorced persons who remarry for particular criticism and specific proscription against receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion without first making a true confession to a priest. This will also affect various areas of the planet where an acute shortage of priests has triggered the practice of taking Communion after making one's peace with God in one's mind because the preparatory sacrament of confession simply isn't available.

Some Catholics, particularly elderly ones, would welcome these changes, whether they actually occur or not. Many of them hate the Vatican II reforms. I was sitting next to my late beloved and curmudgeonly father in the early 1970s when a bearded guitar-wielder first strode to the altar to play some inspirational song of hope. My father actually stood up in the pew to leave before my mother dragged him back down to the kneeling bench.

I also secretly prized during those days the frequent look of repugnance on his face during the newly instituted "kiss of peace," which soon evolved into a hearty-handshake-with-those-nearby section of the Mass. My father was one of the friendliest gentlemen on earth; he just liked to reserve his handshakes for persons he knew, or trusted, or was happy to see.

Casting aside all the paternal nostalgia, I'm wary of Benedict XVI's plans. This is a man whose mind sees cultural development as conspiracy.

He still condemns the use of condoms to fight AIDS in Africa. He's already bounced, without adequate explanation, the respected editor of a liberal Jesuit magazine in this country.

Many Catholics are unaware that Ratzinger even criticized the immensely popular Harry Potter books as harmful to children.

In a letter of praise two years ago to a narrow-minded German critic of author J.K. Rowling, then-Cardinal Ratzinger described her astoundingly successful books as "subtle seductions" for youths and works that "act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly."

Get real. I personally think J.K. Rowling deserves some Nobel-level award for becoming a one-woman assault squad on illiteracy. Do you know how hard it is to pry kids away from the TV or iPod or cell phone and get them to actually read a book? The numbers are there. Rowling actually has children reading again, using their TV-stunted imaginations anew to convert print into thought, to transform type into imagery. Her harmless books are stimulating and superbly written, and most children understand they are merely interesting works of fantasy about magic and good and evil and pretend sorcery -- stuff kids are intrigued by and will find anyway.

If the new pope really wants to do some good in this vein, he should take a gander at the hideously violent and often demonically promotional TV fare that is available to the majority of toddlers and youngsters in this country. Talk then about conditioning senses and warping vulnerable minds.

In his years as a promising priest and bishop, Ratzinger was viewed as somewhat of a liberal and reform-minded theologian. He once wrote a short book that viewed Vatican II with enthusiasm and promise. In his previous post as protector of the faith, however, the native of Germany became more and more conservative until he was known and routinely described as "God's Rottweiler" -- a ferocious defender of venerable Vatican views and practices.

In an excellent article in the July 25 edition of the "New Yorker" magazine, Anthony Grafton describes him in this role as "a snapping guard dog who threatens all dissidents with appropriate punishment." Ratzinger, writes Grafton, "was a censor, and he did his job well."

Since last April, Catholic writers around the world, particularly in Europe and North America, in article after article, have speculated that Ratzinger will realize he is now the spiritual head of the oldest and largest religious organization on the planet and -- as the "New Yorker" writer puts it -- will now "show a milder countenance in his new office." Not very likely. As Grafton writes, Ratzinger has repeatedly denounced "the intellectuals who confused social reform with Christianity" and is at heart himself fearful about intellectual conclusions.

"The intellect," he once told a gathering of about 800 priests, "does not always grant vision, but provides the conditions for intellectual games, and artfully conjures syntheses into existence where there is really nothing but contradiction." Only faith, believes the new pope, will abide.

I agree with author Grafton. A prelate who's fearful that Harry Potter books will block the spiritual growth of young Christians "may find it harder than he thinks to take on modernity in all its sprawling strangeness."

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com July 26 2005