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.
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.
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.