Pope Benedict XVI greets crowd outside his residence in the Vatican
Pool  /  Osservatore Romano via Reuters
Pope Benedict XVI greets a crowd outside his residence in the Vatican on Wednesday.The pope moved swiftly on the first day of his reign on Wednesday to allay fears of a rigid, authoritarian papacy, saying he would work for dialogue both within the Church and with other faiths. 
By NBC News Producer
NBC News
updated 4/21/2005 11:01:51 AM ET 2005-04-21T15:01:51

The old Roman proverb  — “He who goes into the conclave a pope comes out a cardinal” —was disproved with the lightning-quick election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the 265th papacy of the Catholic Church.

The German cardinal went into the Sistine Chapel heralded by most observers as the next pope, and indeed came out of the conclave less than 24 hours later as Benedict XVI.

So far the reaction to his selection by the College of Cardinals has been surprisingly strong, both for and against the 78 year-old longtime head of the Vatican department that enforces compliance with church doctrine.

It was surprising to see teenagers and 21-year-olds cheering and hugging each other in St. Peter’s Square on Tuesday when they heard the winner’s name. It was also surprising to see an Asian nun frown at the same news. 

It was less surprising to see the disappointment on American faces looking up at the Jumbotron screen in Times Square. What most Americans have heard of Ratzinger in the past has been in a negative context.

Same message, new messenger
John Paul II’s captivating charm drew people to the pulpit where they at least heard the sermon, even if they didn’t embrace it.

Benedict XVI does not have that natural appeal, so he’ll have to find his own voice to summon the faithful.

We know from the last two decades that he won’t soften his values to please the crowd, but he may gain from presenting them in gentler tones.

Ratzinger's reputation as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has projected the image of a hard-line disciplinarian who cracked down on theologians and professors who strayed from the church’s official interpretation of Catholic teaching.

But his supporters say that reputation is unfair and undeserved. Even the American cardinals speaking to the press the day after the election insisted that he isn’t anything like the icy and dictatorial caricature promulgated by the media.  

Rather, they claim, Ratzinger the man, is an extremely gentle, humble, caring person. They describe a mild-mannered elderly gentleman who listens actively to everyone he speaks with, and never behaves in a forceful manner.

A humble and highly intelligent man
They say that if there’s anything intimidating about the new Pope Benedict XVI  it’s not his manner, but his intelligence. By all accounts he is so brilliant, so intelligent, that he discusses complicated theological and philosophical matters with the ease of someone giving directions to their home.  

That can be disconcerting for the average person, but his friends say he balances that intensity with a deep humility.

He exposed a humble side in his first Mass as pope when he said, “On the one hand I have a sense of inadequacy and human turmoil at the responsibility entrusted to me yesterday … On the other hand, I feel living in me a deep gratitude to God who does not abandon his flock, but guides them always.” 

That pastoral notion was given a harsh double-meaning on the front page of the Italian communist daily “Il Manifesto,” with a huge full-page photo of the smiling pope at his introduction on the balcony with the banner headline, “IL PASTORE TEDESCO” — “THE GERMAN SHEPHERD.” It's a clear allusion to a previous moniker given to Ratzinger as “God’s Rottweiler.”

'Charm test' will be world stage
This Jekyll-and-Hyde conflict will inevitably resolve itself on the public stage in the coming months, and is due for a major “charm test” in August when the new pope will have to keep an appointment made by John Paul II with Catholic young people for “World Youth Day.”

The youth rally is held in a different country every two years, and by accident or providence, this year it’s to be in Ratzinger’s homeland of Germany, in the city of Cologne.

John Paul II’s legacy leaves an obligation to follow through on commitments to events like Youth Day. And for a shy man like Joseph Ratzinger it will be a challenge, but no one who knows him expects him to perform like the Polish crowd-pleaser, and in that respect the cardinal electors may have made a wise decision.

There has been so much talk about how difficult it would be for anyone to fill John Paul’s shoes — the choice of Ratzinger proves the cardinals chose not to try do so at all.  

Different ‘front man’
Instead of trying to find a personality that could match Karol Wojtyla’s dramatic flair and charismatic flamboyance, a John Paul II “type,” who would inevitably fall short in constant comparisons – they went with the polar opposite. 

Instead of going for ”young, extroverted and physical;” they went for old, shy and bookish, and by doing so the cardinals mooted the issue.

In a sense they paid homage to Pope John Paul by validating his beliefs and priorities in electing the scholar who developed his thinking in important interpretations of church doctrine and morality. They are carrying forth the message, without trying to imitate the messenger.  But in that choice lies a danger.

The French press aptly characterized the dichotomy in John Paul II’s popular impact very early in his papacy with the line: “The people love the singer, but they don’t like the song.”  That phrase captured the superstar appeal of a man who drew millions to see him in person, but didn’t subscribe to his moral standards.

Now the cardinals have picked a man who never wanted to be on centerstage to deliver that difficult message.

U2’s Bono described John Paul as the “best front man the Catholic Church has ever had.” Ratzinger never wanted to be the front man; he was content to write the message for John Paul to deliver.

Now that he has picked up the mantle of the messenger he will quickly realize, (if his sharp mind hasn’t already], that the truth — especially if it’s a difficult truth involving self-denial — needs to be attractive if it’s going to be effective.  

Stephen Weeke is NBC News' Rome Bureau Chief.


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