Pope Benedict waves after his arrival at the Pantaleon cloister in Cologne
Michael Dalder  /  Reuters
Pope Benedict waves after his arrival at the Pantaleon cloister in Cologne on Friday.
By NBC News Producer
NBC News
updated 8/19/2005 3:24:44 PM ET 2005-08-19T19:24:44

COLOGNE, Germany — On the first day of his first foreign trip, Pope Benedict XVI sailed down the Rhine River on the upper deck of a ship holding his arms up to the cheers and waves of hundreds of thousands of young people lining the river banks.

Young people have come here to Cologne from more than a hundred countries to celebrate World Youth Day, an event created by Pope John Paul II. 

But as destiny would have it, they wound up welcoming the first German pope in a thousand years back to his homeland.

World Youth Day is somewhat like an Olympic Games of Catholicism. 

Groups ranging in age from 16 to 25, usually led by a standard-bearer holding their national flag, merge into massive crowds with hundreds of other groups from different countries.

Dozens of languages swirl and blend harmoniously in an atmosphere of youthful enthusiasm and religious fervor driven by soccer-stadium type chants of “Be-ne-dict! Be-ne-dict!”

But the very nature of Youth Day, and the energy generated by hundreds of thousands of teenagers in one place, is a reflection of the gigantic public persona of the late John Paul II.

His papacy was marked by the powerful charisma of his personality, a magnetic charm which he manipulated to great effect, with the crowds and with the media.

That energy is now revolving around the 78-year-old Joseph Ratzinger, the shy and bookish Bavarian theologian, who loyally served John Paul II for more than 20 years as the top enforcer of church doctrine.

Ratzinger’s elevation dismayed some liberal Catholics because of his reputation as the Vatican’s top cop. Even here in his native Germany there were some groans when he was elected to the papacy.

Pursuing same goals, but with a different style
Stepping out of the shadows of one of the greatest pontificates of all time, the quiet German pope has quickly had to come to terms with fame and mass appeal.

By donning the white robes, Benedict has taken on the expectations of millions of people who now look to the pope for more than just leadership. 

When he died, many among the throngs that lined up for hours to pay their respects to the body of John Paul talked about the “personal connection” that they felt with him. Beyond the crowd-pleasing showmanship of a gifted stage personality, there was something in the Polish pope that touched people individually.

Benedict re-affirms his commitment to John Paul’s legacy by repeatedly underscoring his predecessor’s goals. However, he seems to be emphasizing that he intends to pursue his work, but not his style.

On a logical level that makes a lot of sense. It is unrealistic to expect a 78-year-old scholarly man to suddenly dive into an ocean of humanity and captivate believers with hand gestures and facial expressions. 

Benedict is still shy in the spotlight, but he’s not uncomfortable with himself. His intellectual self-assuredness comes through eloquently when he speaks, and his social poise is very steady in all manner of official encounters.

Twinkle of unexpected may be gone
What’s lacking, (and it’s a feeling that’s tinged with the bittersweet regret of the loss of a legend,) is any “expectation of the unexpected.”

Benedict’s thoughts and movements are remarkably smooth and planned, but they convey a measure of rigidity that rules out the possibility of improvisation. 

With John Paul, before the physical decline, there was always a palpable sense of anticipation in the crowd that any minute he might surprise them with a gesture, a comment, or a song. 

A hundred days into the papacy of Joseph Ratzinger, the tone so far has promised a steadfast, intelligent and rationalized leadership of the Roman Catholic Church amidst the challenges of secularism and materialism.

Benedict will give the church a studied guidance and as much sociability as he can muster on public occasions. 

But he can’t deliver what he doesn’t have, and that’s what many people will miss the most, that curious suspense of expecting a surprise ... from a pope.

Stephen Weeke is the NBC News Rome bureau chief.


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