VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday pledged to work to unify all Christians, reach out to other religions and continue implementing reforms from the Second Vatican Council as he outlined his goals and made clear his pontificate would closely follow the trajectory of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, listed top priorities of his papacy in a message read in Latin to cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel for the first Mass celebrated by the 265th leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
He said his “primary task” would be to work to reunify all Christians and that sentiment alone was not enough. “Concrete acts that enter souls and move consciences are needed,” he said.
The new pope said he wanted to continue “an open and sincere dialogue” with other religions and would do everything in his power to improve the ecumenical cause.
The message was clearly designed to show that Benedict was intent on following many of the groundbreaking paths charted by John Paul, who had made reaching out to other religions and trying to heal the 1,000-year-old schism in Christianity a hallmark of his pontificate.
Video: Becoming pope Benedict referred to his predecessor several times in his message, including a reference to the late pope’s final will, where John Paul said he hoped new generations would draw on the work of the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meeting that modernized the church.
“I too ... want to affirm with decisive willingness to follow in the commitment of carrying out the Second Vatican Council, in the wake of my predecessors and in faithful continuity with the 2,000-year-old tradition of the church,” he said.
John Paul supported council reforms but cracked down on what both men considered excesses spawned by the changes, including calls for priests to be allowed to marry and admission of women into the priesthood.
First Germanic pope
The Vatican’s hard-line enforcer of church orthodoxy under John Paul II for almost 25 years, Benedict had gone into the two-day conclave as a favorite. He was elected Tuesday as the oldest pontiff in 275 years and the first Germanic pope in almost a millennium.
A cheering crowd of more than 100,000 welcomed Benedict when he stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica as dusk fell Tuesday and gave his first blessing as pope. By contrast, St. Peter’s Square was nearly empty early Wednesday, although by the end of the Mass a few hundred had gathered to watch on giant TV screens.
“We greet our Pope Benedict XVI,” read a poster toted by teens from a high school in Handrup, Germany, who were in the square when his black Mercedes convertible, its top up and Vatican flags flying, zipped into and out of his former offices at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Benedict said he had been surprised by his election, and German Cardinal Joachim Meisner told reporters late Tuesday that he had looked “a little forlorn” when he went to change into his papal vestments in the Room of Tears — so nicknamed because many new pontiffs get choked up there, realizing the enormity of their mission.
Meisner added: “By the time dinner came around, Ratzinger was looking much better and very much like the pope.”
Ice cream and champagne
Benedict asked cardinals to dine together on bean soup, cold cuts, a salad and fruit, Meisner said. The nuns who prepare their meals at the Vatican hotel where the cardinals were sequestered during the conclave didn’t have time to plan a special menu, so there were only two special treats — ice cream and champagne.
In his first words as pope delivered from the loggia overlooking the square, Benedict paid tribute in accented Italian to “the great John Paul II.” He called himself “a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”
It was a sign of John Paul’s charismatic legacy looming over the new pontiff, who is described by people who know him as intellectual, cultured and rather reserved.
Video: Benedict said Wednesday he felt John Paul’s presence as he wrestled with two conflicting emotions following the election: thanks to God for the gift of being pope but also “a sense of inadequacy” in carrying out the responsibility.
“I seem to feel his strong hand holding mine, I feel I can see his smiling eyes and hear his words, at this moment particularly directed at me: ’Be not afraid.”’
Benedict, who turned 78 on Saturday, is the oldest pope elected since Clement XII in 1730. His age clearly was a factor among cardinals who favored a “transitional” pope who could skillfully lead the church as it absorbs John Paul II’s legacy, rather than a younger cardinal who could wind up with another long pontificate.
Shortest conclaves in 100 years
His election in four ballots over two days concluded one of the shortest conclaves in 100 years.
A conservative on issues such as homosexuality, the ordination of women and lifting the celibacy requirement for priests, Benedict has led the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — a position he used to discipline church dissidents and uphold church policy against attempts at reform by liberals and activist priests.
His background was clearly on the minds of cardinals a day after the election.
“God has taken the most unusual people and placed them in places of authority, power if you will, and used them for his purposes,” said American Cardinal Adam Maida. “So I believe that Cardinal Ratzinger, with all his gifts and talents and even some of his shortcomings, will somehow be able to reach others.”
British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor suggested Ratzinger might temper some of his positions, at least publicly, because of the office he now holds.
“The pope now has a platform and a place he didn’t have before. Now he has much wider responsibilities, and I think he’s aware of that,” Murphy-O’Connor said, adding that Ratzinger was elected “notwithstanding his age.”
Joy over the selection of a new pope immediately mixed with worries that Benedict could polarize a global church, whose challenges include growing secularism in rich countries and inroads by evangelical groups in regions such as Latin America.
“He could be a wedge rather than a unifier for the church,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit weekly magazine America.
'This is so terrible'
Evelyn Strauch, a 54-year-old housewife from Ratzinger’s home state of Bavaria, buried her head in her hands and wept as she stood in St. Peter’s.
“This can’t be true,” she said. “I had hoped so much that we would get a good pope who would do something for women. ... This is so terrible.”
Mark Wunsch, 27, a religious philosophy student from Denver, was elated.
“The cardinals elected a good and holy man who was close to Pope John Paul II,” he said. “He’ll be a wonderful and good leader in preaching the truth and love.”
Benedict inherits a range of pressing issues. These include priest sex-abuse scandals that have cost the church millions of dollars in settlements in the United States and elsewhere, chronic shortages of priests and nuns in the West, and calls for easing the ban on condoms to help fight the spread of AIDS.
And he has to follow in the footsteps of John Paul II, the global pontiff who made 104 international trips in his more than 26 years as pope and set new standards in reaching out to other religions.
In an indication that he would indeed travel and continue to reach out to young people, Benedict said Wednesday he planned to attend the church’s World Youth Day celebrations in Cologne, Germany, in August.
Two images of Ratzinger have emerged in recent days.
With his wispy silver hair blowing in the wind, the German prelate stood before the world’s political and spiritual leaders at John Paul’s funeral April 8 and offered an eloquent and sensitive farewell that moved some to tears.
Then, just before the cardinals entered the conclave Monday, he made clear where he stands ideologically, using words that John Paul would surely have endorsed. He warned about tendencies that he considered dangers to the faith: sects and ideologies like Marxism, liberalism, atheism, agnosticism and relativism — the ideology that there are no absolute truths.
“We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires,” he said.
He has denounced rock music, dismissed anyone who had tried to find “feminist” meanings in the Bible, and last year told American bishops it was appropriate to deny Communion to those who support abortion and euthanasia.
Benedict is the first Germanic pope in nearly 1,000 years. His faith is rooted in Bavaria, the Alpine region with Germany’s strongest Catholic identity. Like many of his generation, he carries the burden of Germany’s past.
In his memoirs, the policeman’s son wrote of being enrolled in Hitler’s Nazi youth movement against his will when he was 14 in 1941, when membership was compulsory. He says he was soon let out because of his studies for the priesthood.
He and his older brother, Georg, were ordained in 1951. He taught theology and earned a reputation as a forward-looking prelate. He took part in the Second Vatican Council, but had some reservations.
Returning to Germany between sessions of the council, “I found the mood in the church and among theologians to be agitated,” he wrote in his memoirs. “More and more there was the impression that nothing stood fast in the church, that everything was up for revision.”
In 1977, he was appointed bishop of Munich and elevated to cardinal three months later by Pope Paul VI. He was one of only two cardinals in the latest conclave who were not chosen by John Paul.
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