John Paul II was a pope of firsts, from launching World Youth Day to visiting the Rome synagogue, from leading a liturgy of repentance for the failures of Christians to convening a summit of “new movements.” Every time John Paul broke the mold, he added another chapter to the story of his remarkable 26-year papacy.
Today, when Pope Benedict XVI repeats those acts, the point is no longer to innovate. Instead, it’s to signal that the precedents will last, that these gestures have passed into the permanent inheritance of the Catholic church.
In a sense, one might say that Benedict is becoming a pope of seconds -- and, arguably, those seconds are almost as important as the firsts.
That will be the case again on Oct. 27, when Benedict convenes a cross section of spiritual leaders in Assisi, Italy, repeating John Paul’s historic initiative in favor of peace in 1986. John Paul himself repeated the gesture in 1993 (to pray for peace in the Balkans) and in 2002 (to pray for peace in the world after the terrorist attacks of September 2001). This edition will mark the 25th anniversary of John Paul’s original summit.