Photos: Benedict: The first years

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  1. Cardinal Ratzinger attends Pope John Paul II's funeral in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on April 8, 2005. The cardinal was elected to succeed John Paul as Pope Benedict XVI. He is the 265th pope, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, which claims a billion members. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The newly elected Pope Benedict XVI appears on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on April 19, 2005, in Vatican City. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Pope Benedict XVI waves from his popemobile as he arrives to celebrate Mass near Kerpen, Germany, on Aug. 21, 2005. More than a million young pilgrims attended the Mass at a Catholic festival. (Pier Paolo Cito / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Pope Benedict XVI waves to pilgrims as he floats down the Rhine River on Aug. 18, 2005, in Cologne, Germany. The pope returned to his native Germany for the first trip of his papacy. (Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Pilgrims wave at the pope during the river float. More than 400,000 young Catholics from nearly 200 countries welcomed the new pope to Cologne, Germany, for the World Youth Day festival. (Sebastian Willnow / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of the Christmas crib in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Dec. 31, 2005. (Patrick Hertzog / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pope Benedict XVI, wearing a Camauro, which is a red velvet hat with white ermine trim used by popes in the 12th century, waves to pilgrims as he arrives on St. Peter's Square to preside over his weekly general audience on Dec. 28, 2005. (Patrick Hertzog / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Pope Benedict XVI talks with unidentified members of a Muslim delegation during his weekly open-air general audience in St. Peter's Square on March 1, 2006. (Osservatore Romano Arturo Mari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pilgrims gather in St. Peter's Square on April 2, 2006, as the pope leads a special prayer vigil to mark the one-year anniversary of Pope John Paul II's death. (Patrick Hertzog / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pope Benedict XVI prays at the tomb of late Pope John Paul II in the grotto beneath St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican on April 6, 2006. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Pope Benedict XVI lays prostrate as he prays during Good Friday mass in St. Peter's Basilica on April 14, 2006. (Andreas Solaro / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pope Benedict XVI arrives to lead the Easter mass in St. Peter's Square on April 16, 2006. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Pope Benedict XVI greets believers as he arrives for evening prayers at the basilica of Altoetting on Sept. 11, 2006. Benedict is making his fourth foreign trip since becoming pope in April 2005 and the second to Germany in that time. (Thomas Lohnes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Pope Benedict XVI and Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I arrive at the St. George Church in Istanbul on November 29, 2006. Pope Benedict met with Bartholomew in pursuit of a key goal of his papacy: healing a rift between the two feuding branches of Christianity that dates back nearly 1,000 years. (Patrick Hertzog / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Pope Benedict XVI leaves the Sistine Chapel after a baptism ceremony at the Vatican on January 7, 2007. (Alberto Pizzoli / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Pope Benedict XVI greets pilgrims and faithful during an open-air Palm Sunday Mass celebrated in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 1, 2007. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem and is the start of the church's Holy Week. (Alessandra Tarantino / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Pope Benedict XVI waves from the popemobile as he arrives for the opening mass of the Latin American Episcopal Council in Aparecida, Brazil, on May 13, 2007. (Victor Caivano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. President Bush meets with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on June 9, 2007. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah presents gifts to Pope Benedict XVI during their meeting at the Vatican on Nov. 6, 2007. The pope has been pressing the Saudi Arabian monarch to allow freedom of worship for Christians. (Chris Helgren / Pool via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Benedict meets French President Nicolas Sarkozy at his private library Dec. 20, 2007, in Vatican City. Sarkozy was visiting the pope for the first time since taking office amid speculation over his relationship with ex-model Carla Bruni, whom he later married. (Franco Origlia / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Benedict greets the faithful during the Angelus prayer in St. Peter's square at the Vatican on Jan. 20, 2008. Tens of thousands of people attended the pope's traditional noontime blessing, showing their support after the Vatican canceled his visit to a university because of protests by students and faculty. (L'Osservatore Romano via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pope Benedict XVI arrives at the Amadou Ahidjo stadium to celebrate a Mass in Yaounde , Cameroon, on March 19, 2009. The pontiff was in Africa for a seven-day trip that took him to Cameroon and Angola. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Pope Benedict XVI walks in front of the Dome of the Rock in the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City on May 12, 2009. (Osservatore Romano / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A man in Rome uses an Apple iPod Touch to view a new official Vatican Internet portal with an image of Pope Benedict XVI on May 22, 2009. The Vatican website,, went live ahead of the Roman Catholic Church's World Communications Day the next day. (Alessandro Bianchi / REUTERS) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pope Benedict XVI walks with US President Barack Obama first lady michelle during an audience on July 10, 2009 at The Vatican. Obama was meeting the pope for the first time. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. This sequence of images taken from amateur video shows an unidentified woman jumping over a barrier and grabbing the pope as a guard pulls her down, while the pope walks down the main aisle to begin Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City on Dec. 24, 2009. The pope was unhurt, and the service continued. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. The faithful crowd into Hyde Park during a prayer vigil led by the pope in London on Sept. 18, 2010. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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By NBC News Producer
NBC News
updated 4/19/2006 8:33:57 AM ET 2006-04-19T12:33:57

ROME — Asked a year ago what they might have envisioned after a year of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger’s papacy, many liberal Roman Catholics might have imagined a bleak picture of a repressive church, and conservative Catholics might have described a church re-invigorated by a thorough house-cleaning of wayward thought and behavior.

Neither of these scenarios has come to pass, as Pope Benedict XVI proves to be a much different person as the pope than he was as a cardinal.

Those who know him say it’s not his personality that has changed, but his job description; that what we are seeing is a man of deep faith and dedication to duty, rising to the huge increase in responsibility that accompanies the change from being an advisor to the throne, to sitting there himself.

Defender of the faith
As the cardinal in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, his job was to ensure that the official teachings of the church were followed throughout Roman Catholicism. When theologians or preachers wandered off the theological reservation, it was his job to either rein them in or shut them down. 

That work was almost entirely intellectual, requiring constant reading, study, and analysis of past and present interpretations of the religion. 

As the defender of the ideas of the faith, Ratzinger earned a rigorous reputation for sharp analysis and even sharper criticism in the face of unorthodox, or liberal, or pick-and-choose “cafeteria” Catholicism. For this he earned the nickname “God’s Rottweiler.”

Ratzinger served as Pope John Paul II’s head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for most of his papacy. All those years that the Polish pope spent encountering and performing for millions of people, Ratzinger spent with books and writings. For all the compassion and altruism that his friends attest to, the cardinal did not publicly confront the challenges of observing those teachings in everyday life around the world. 

Yet, ascending to the throne of Peter, and stepping into the shoes of the fisherman, Benedict shed the cassock of the cardinal, and took on the weight of a billion souls. 

Modulated message
As the shepherd of the world’s largest religious flock, Benedict deliberately modulated his message to suit his mission, and so far that message has been about the love of Christ, and how it’s worth more than anything the temporal world could possibly ever offer.

“I think people have been pleasantly surprised. It’s interesting how he talks," said John Wilkins, former editor of Britain’s foremost Catholic magazine, “The Tablet.”  "In Cologne, (for Germany’s Youth Day last summer), with all those young people, he never wagged his finger at them. His first encyclical about love doesn’t point the finger at anybody.”

Wilkins was referring to Benedict’s first encyclical “God is Love.” The encyclical — a teaching letter of highest papal authority — was eagerly anticipated by Vatican watchers who expected it to give some clues about the direction of the new papacy.

The soft tone of the document — a meditation on love and the greater need for charity in an unjust world — surprised many who were ready to buttonhole Benedict as a doctrinal hardliner.

“It’s a positive approach pulling people back to what Christianity is all about. This is a man who has been seized by the truth of Christianity as a very young man, and he wants to give that to the world,” Wilkins said.

Youth appeal
Benedict’s impact on the young has been surprising. The rock concert-like screams and cheers he is met with by young people are as loud for him as they were for John Paul. 

“He’s really cute. He seems really friendly and nice,” said Renee Lacoby, a young woman visiting St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday with a group of fellow students from St. Mary’s College in Wellington, New Zealand. A friend of Lacoby's added, “He’s really cool.”

Not what you’d expect for a reserved and bookish German intellectual, who just turned 79.

A group of students from North Carolina felt the same way. “I like how he brings a lot of energy, he seems like he really connects with the people,” said Mary Rose Bode, a twenty-something young woman from Raleigh. “I feel like he’s going to live up to everyone’s expectations, and do a lot of great things.”

Her friend Mary Crowson agreed, “I like him a lot, I think he has a lot to live up to from the last one, cause we all knew him, but I think he’s doing a good job.”

Crowson’s view seems to the consensus now, even among older Catholics and church-watchers.

"He realizes that the only way to fill such large shoes is just to be your own man, which is what he has been doing, he has not been trying to copy the style of someone who probably no one can copy,” said veteran pope-watcher Philip Pullella, Reuter’s Chief Vatican correspondent.

Gift for simplification
Benedict’s tightly controlled physical poise, which often presents as timidity, seems to be have developed into an appealing stage-presence of its own, akin to how Al Gore’s robotic lack of movement became funny in itself.

But there is one crowd-pleasing area where he is surpassing his predecessor, and which is making a big impact.  It’s the clarity with which he expresses his reasoning on subjects that are often very complex.

Both in written sermons and off-the-cuff remarks, he states his positions with step-by-step logical progressions that are readily understandable by everyone. He has a real gift for simplification.

“He is, after all, a German professor, and he has the ability to speak beautifully about very difficult subjects. Again, at Cologne, he gave this wonderful address to young people all about the Eucharist and the Mass, and that takes some doing, but he did it brilliantly,” said Wilkins. “He has the capacity to make his thoughts take wing, and does that in his books, and he can do that in his talks.”

A year after his election to the highest position in the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict has smoothly left behind the notoriety of the moral watchdog for the benign amiability of a religious retriever with a kind and steadfast disposition.

Stephen Weeke is NBC News Rome Bureau Chief.


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