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Pope caring and collegial, U.S. cardinals stress

Pope Benedict XVI had been unfairly caricatured as an unfeeling conservative in his longtime role as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal watchdog, American cardinals said Wednesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

American cardinals said Wednesday that new Pope Benedict XVI had been unfairly caricatured as an unfeeling conservative in his longtime role as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal watchdog.

They described him instead as a caring, brilliant churchman who listens to those with opposing views.

“He wants to be collegial. He wants the advice of cardinals,” Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said in a news conference at the Pontifical North American College one day after the papal election. “That for me is one of the great things.”

The former German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected in a swift conclave that ended Tuesday, just a day after it began.

Choice 'clear almost from the beginning'
Chicago Cardinal Francis George, citing the conclave’s oath of secrecy, declined to give specifics of the vote, but said, “It was a choice that was clear almost from the beginning.”

New York Cardinal Edward Egan called Benedict “calm” and “strong,” while Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony said, “We have to get to know this man” beyond his public image as a cold disciplinarian.

“I think he’ll play well as soon as people come to know him,” said Egan, who worked for years at the Vatican as an appellate judge and oversaw revisions of the church’s code of canon law. “This is a very unprepossessing, humble, and if I may say, lovely gentleman.”

Some American Catholics may be slow to warm to the new pope who spent 24 years as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The majority told pollsters in recent weeks that they favor ordaining women and making celibacy optional for priests.

Anguished liberals noted Ratzinger’s role in enforcing orthodoxy at Catholic universities, his hard line against gay relationships and his warning that voters would be “cooperating in evil” if they backed a politician specifically because he supported abortion rights.

However, many Catholics predicted Americans would come to admire the new pope for his intellect, spirituality and consistent support for the traditions of their faith.

Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler, who leads outreach to the Jewish community for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Ratzinger was sensitive to the concerns of Jews. Israeli leaders and American Jewish leaders praised him for his strong condemnations of anti-Semitism despite his ties to the Nazi Party as a youth — which was compulsory for young Germans at the time.

A 'very human touch'
Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali said that in the excitement inside the conclave after the ballots were tallied, Benedict took the time to wish him a happy birthday.

“With all the things he had to think about, he had the very human touch,” said Rigali, who worked for more than two decades as a Vatican diplomat, among other duties.

And Egan recalled how Ratzinger took the time to personally wish him well before he became a U.S. archbishop. “He is a very lovely and loving person,” Egan said. “I think you’re going to like him very much.”

Eleven American cardinals voted in the papal election. Egan and Rigali called the election moving after the tense days leading up to the conclave and said the new pope organized a party in the hotel where the cardinals were staying inside the Vatican. Unlike the election of Pope John Paul II, when he led the cardinals in singing Polish folk songs after his election, the cardinals sang in Latin this time, George said.

“There were no folk songs or anything like that. It’s a different style,” he said.

Asked his thoughts heading into the conclave, Egan said he was impressed by Ratzinger’s moving homily at John Paul’s funeral. Egan went as far as to say its sensitivity reminded him of Pope John XXIII, a beloved pontiff known as “Good Pope John.”

But Rigali said the decision to choose Ratzinger was not made in the days ahead of the conclave or because of the German cardinal’s leadership in mourning John Paul.

“Decisions like this are not made on how a person impresses you in the last five minutes, the last hours, the last days,” he said.