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Benedict strives to escape John Paul's shadow

For those watching Pope Benedict’s ways and words this week through the memory of John Paul’s oversized magnetism, the key question may well be one of relevance: How much does a self-effacing, old European pontiff really matter to modern America?
Image: Merchandise commemorating Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming visit.
Margaret Trone, of Bethesda, Md., holds a hat and other merchandise commemorating Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming visit to Washington, on April 14, 2008.Jacquelyn Martin / AP
/ Source: NBC News

For those watching Pope Benedict’s ways and words this week through the memory of John Paul’s oversized magnetism, the key question may well be one of relevance: How much does a self-effacing, old European pontiff really matter to modern America?

More than one might think, some analysts suggest, provided Benedict is able to get Americans to really listen to him.

Most non-Catholic Americans know little about the German Jozef Ratzinger, who was elected three years ago this week, as successor to the world-famous Polish pontiff who reigned for more than a quarter century. Indeed, 63 percent of American Catholic respondents in a recent Pew Research Center poll admitted knowing “little” or “nothing” about Benedict, but 74 percent still maintain a favorable opinion of him.  

For Americans who were familiar with John Paul, the differences in style will be evident.

“It will be noticed right away that Benedict doesn't kiss the ground,” said veteran Reuters Vatican correspondent Phil Pullella, referring to John Paul’s dramatic tradition upon arriving in a country for the first time as pope.

“It will be noticed, but also appreciated in a sense, that Benedict doesn't want attention on himself,” said Pullella. He added that because of his almost monotone delivery, Benedict will probably be received by his American audience as more of a “professorial father-knows-best” speaker as opposed to the showman that was John Paul.   

But for those who are patient enough to listen carefully to his speeches, or to read along the text itself, there will be great pleasure in observing an intelligent mind expressing itself in clear and simple logic.

True talent – simplifying complex theories
As a university professor and a sharp theologian, Benedict has matched wits with some of the greatest minds in the 20th century, both believers and non-believers alike, and left many of them in awe of his intellect. His true talent, however, lies in the ability to simplify even the highest of concepts down to language even children can understand.

He made that skill public in a meeting with a group of Italian children at the Vatican a few months after he became pope, when a boy asked how Jesus could be present in the Eucharist if he “couldn’t see him?”

Benedict explained there were many “essential things” that were invisible. “We can’t see electric current but we know that it exists, because we see the lights.” It’s the same case with Jesus, he said, whose presence is “visible where people show a greater capacity for peace and forgiveness.”

So, in his quiet way, Benedict’s biggest challenge may be getting his American audience to listen to his words, rather than judging him by his gestures.

Personal affinity
Benedict also has a personal kinship for America, stemming from his youth. “I don't think Americans know how much he appreciates the United States,” Cardinal John Foley, an American Vatican official, said.

“As a young man after World War II, he saw the effects of the Marshall Plan, which was a wonderful plan toward a former enemy by the United States to rehabilitate and not to punish,” explained Foley. “And the Holy Father has always considered this a marvelous action on the part of the United States toward a former enemy, that conversion and kindness, rather than punitive action, is the best weapon in the world. So in other words, the United States conquered through love.”

It wasn’t only that firsthand experience of American generosity that shaped Benedict’s understanding and enthusiasm for this country and its culture. “I get the impression he likes America very much,” said Foley. “He came here several times as a cardinal and was always fascinated with America, with the dynamism, with the optimism, with the freedom."

Open hearts
Benedict believes he will find open hearts and a keen audience in America.In no other prosperous Western country is religion still so popular, so frequently practiced, and publicly acknowledged, and Benedict knows this.

It’s for this reason that his message will be much more one of thanks and appreciation for American parishioners than one of criticism and condemnation. 

Even though Benedict developed a reputation as a hard-line cardinal and watchdog of Catholic doctrine while serving for more than 20 years under John Paul, it will not be the man nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler” that Americans will experience.

“I don't think you will see him finger-wagging at all.  John Paul II was much more of a finger-wagger,” said Reuters’ Pullella. “Benedict will be highlighting the positive aspects, rather than enumerating what you shouldn't do. He won't repeat a litany of ‘No's.’” 

So rather than a series of passionate anti-abortion speeches, Pullella expects that “Benedict will be patting Americans on the back, saying: ‘Despite all your problems, you’re still keeping the flame alive.’”

Appreciation for American Catholicism
After decades of irritation with the vocal nature of sometimes dissenting American Catholics, even a ship as hard to steer as the Vatican has shifted course and has come to appreciate that “flame” of faith in American Catholicism. Compared to the tremendous decline and in some cases outright rejection and disdain of Catholicism in European countries, the passion of some American Catholics is welcome.

The church hierarchy “have bemoaned the loss of religious identity in Europe, with northern Europe becoming a ‘Post-Christian’ Europe, so to speak, and with southern Europe more attached to festivals and rituals than regular practice, and with losing battles trying to get God into the European Union’s new constitution,” explained Pullella. “Benedict looks at Europe as being astray of its roots in Christianity, mired in adoration of consumer goods.”

Benedict believes that part of the reason for the continued success of faith and religion in America is due to the successful separation of church and state. Where historically in Europe the church has been closely aligned with government, and in some cases associated with oppression, the separation of church and state in America has made faith a matter of freedom, allowing it to flourish. The pope will applaud that tradition while trying to keep his remarks distant from the intense election-year atmosphere.

So while Benedict hopes to make his presence felt in a way that might boost the currently flagging attendance at Sunday Mass of only one-out-of-four Catholics, he will do so quietly, which some think may have a more lasting, relevant impact than the dramatic grandeur of the pope-gone-by.

Yet the fact remains that the reason Benedict will have such a large pulpit to speak from is John Paul II. Because thanks to his media savvy and grand gestures, one of the few things that can pack an American stadium nowadays besides a rock concert or a sporting event is a rally led by an old Catholic pope.

Stephen Weeke was NBC News longtime Rome Bureau Chief who covered Pope John Paul II extensively. Read his story "Traveling through history with John Paul, Vatican reporter recalls excitement, adventure of covering pontiff." He is now based in New York.