Deciphering Benedict XVI

Many U.S. Catholics know little about the pontiff, who will visit this week The pope in America

April 13, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN REPORTER

Pope Benedict XVI comes to Washington this week a virtual stranger in the United States, home to the third-largest Catholic flock on the planet. But his itinerary, which includes stadium-sized Masses for tens of thousands of followers, will provide an opportunity to change his image as a dour disciplinarian.

Three years into his papacy, the 80-year-old pope enjoys nowhere near the public affection, let alone the adoration, that made Pope John Paul II's visit to Baltimore in 1995 such a rapturous event for so many.

Just ask retired teacher Lou Williams. In 2005, he impulsively bought a $2,200 plane ticket and flew to Rome for Pope John Paul's funeral. As a Catholic, he says he wanted to say goodbye in person to the revered, rock star-popular pontiff.

By contrast, when Williams heard that during his first visit to America Pope Benedict would visit Washington, the Baltimore resident was not especially excited. Sure, he tried (and failed) to get a ticket for Thursday's Mass at Nationals Park. But he did so "just to be there, show respect."

To him, the big difference between the popes is the professorial pope's absence of charisma. In Williams' arid observation, "He doesn't have it at all."

At least Williams has an opinion of this pope, and actually likes his conservative views. Some 80 percent of Americans, and 63 percent of Catholics, know little or nothing about him, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. In another survey, by Marist College, one in six Americans had never heard of the man.

To the extent he is known, he may have a bit of an image problem, having been caricatured as a "Rottweiler" in his former job as defender of church doctrine. It probably has not helped that the only biographical fact most people knew about the new pope was that he had been in the Hitler Youth and that one of his few well-publicized acts as pope was a speech many Muslims decried as anti-Islam.

Well, Americans are in for a surprise, says Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, who has observed the pope over many years. "There is a magnetism to him, and that's going to come across. I think people will come away pretty impressed."

Facing challenges

Pope Benedict is the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics at a time when the church faces big challenges here and abroad. In Europe, the pope sees rising secularism as a major threat. In this country, the Catholic Church has lost so many native-born congregants - some because of the priest sex abuse crisis - that fully 10 percent of American adults say they are former Catholics, according to another Pew survey.

In many ways, Pope Benedict's tenure so far is a continuation of Pope John Paul's 27-year tenure. Vatican watchers say that is no surprise given both Pope Benedict's track record when he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the customary continuity from one papacy to the next.

An outspoken promoter of peace, Pope Benedict regularly calls for an end to hostilities in Iraq and other hot spots. He firmly opposes abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women. He says he is striving to improve relations with Jews and Muslims; his itinerary this week includes a visit to the Park East Synagogue in New York.

As pope, he has banned seminary admission for actively gay would-be priests, and he has endorsed the revival of a Latin Mass largely abandoned decades ago in the name of modernity.

Like his predecessor, the pope has no tolerance for what he calls the "dictatorship of relativism" - a situation "that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one's own ego and one's own desires as the final measure."

He has said the Catholic Church is the only "true" church and makes it clear that Rome sets the rules. As under Pope John Paul, dissident theologians have been punished, though they have not been silenced.

But Pope Benedict's style differs markedly from his predecessor's, an outgrowth, to a large degree, of contrasting personalities.

As a young man, Pope John Paul dabbled in acting and never lost his love for the stage. As pope, he traveled the world and always seemed reluctant to see his festive stadium Masses end.

Pope Benedict is a German academic with a quiet, even shy, demeanor. He treasures his vast library and plays Mozart on the piano. He has acknowledged that being pope is not easy. It is one thing to know church doctrine, he quipped, but another to help a billion people live it.

The pope is often described as a teacher for whom words matter more than symbols or grand gestures. As author David Gibson put it, "He gets to the soul through the head; John Paul II got to your soul through the heart. You really have to pay attention and read what Benedict says."

The differences go further. Pope Benedict was "not overly enthusiastic about the rock-star pontificate" of Pope John Paul and has taken a low-key approach with less focus on himself, said Gibson, author of The Rule of Benedict.

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