VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI outlined an agenda yesterday that he described as being based on the legacy of his predecessor, saying he wanted to strengthen and unify Christianity throughout the world even as he seeks dialogue with leaders of other religions.
During Mass at the Sistine Chapel for the cardinals who had elected him the previous night, sitting before Michelangelo's painting, "The Last Judgment," Pope Benedict said the church's priorities will include attention to youth and carrying out reforms set out by the Second Vatican Council.
"I address everybody, even those who follow other religions or who simply look for an answer to life's fundamental questions and still haven't found it," he said, speaking in Latin and wearing the cream robe that the church reserves for its popes.
"To all, I turn with simplicity and affection, to ensure that the church wants to continue weaving an open and sincere dialogue with them, in the quest for the real good for man and society.
"I will spare no efforts and dedication to continue the promising dialogue with different civilizations that was started by my cherished predecessors, so that a better future for everybody originates from mutual comprehension."
Setting a tone
The televised speech was conciliatory in tone and considered a peace gesture to those who expect this pontiff to take a theologically conservative turn. It was filled with language that has not been identified with him as the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, considered the doctrinal disciplinarian under Pope John Paul II.
The new pope also repeatedly invoked Pope John Paul as a pontiff he plans to emulate, particularly in his outreach to young people, whom he called "Pope John Paul II's privileged interlocutors."
"I will continue the dialogue with you, dear youth, future and hope of the church and mankind," he said.
John L. Allen Jr., author of the 2000 biography Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith, said the speech indicated the new pope understands that his role has abruptly changed.
"He's not a leader of a faction anymore. He's the leader of the universal church," Allen said.
Under Pope John Paul, Ratzinger was the unofficial spokesman for church leaders who believed that expanding the reach of Catholicism around the world was less important than emphasizing the core principles of the faith. He led the crackdown on liberation theology in Latin America and stripped authority from the church's regional bishops. On Monday, as a cardinal, he delivered a homily excoriating what he called modern society's "dictatorship of relativism."
But even with the apparent triumph of Pope Benedict's theological point of view, evident in his swift election, Allen said the new pope seemed to recognize yesterday that he now speaks for the entire span of the 1.1 billion-member faith.
"It's not at all an accident that he chose to touch on these issues," Allen said. "It was a virtual laundry list of the things his critics are most concerned about."
After the Mass, the seven American cardinals who voted in the conclave spoke to reporters and confronted the stern reputation of the man they elected pope. They emphasized the new pope's softer qualities, describing Pope Benedict as warm and kind in person, and almost shy in public.
They also called him a formidable intellectual and an attentive listener, despite critics who considered him authoritarian in his role as prefect of the church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Edward Egan of New York recounted how Ratzinger cut short a trip so he could visit Egan, then a young priest, and bid him farewell. Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore said the new pope reminded him of his own mother, "sweet and clear."
The effort by the American cardinals did not conceal the fact that the conclave's choice has been a controversial one for Catholics in the United States and beyond. Much of the crowd in St. Peter's square Tuesday evening seemed joyous when Ratzinger was introduced as Pope Benedict XVI, but outside that knot of faithful, the cardinals acknowledged, there has been debate.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said, "We have to get to know this man."
Despite his age - he turned 78 two days before the conclave began - and a nationality that had not assumed the papal throne since the 11th century, Ratzinger was elected pope in just four rounds of voting, marking one of the shortest conclaves in history.
"It was a choice that was almost clear from the beginning," said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.
The cardinals said Ratzinger stood out from the rest for several reasons, such as his fluency in several languages, including Italian, English and Latin. He has extensive Vatican experience as well as pastoral experience as head of a major archdiocese, Munich and Freising. His personal and intellectual ties to the previous pope also made his election a symbol of continuity for a church whose faithful remain devoted to Pope John Paul II.
The choice stood out
"That kind of person can't be dismissed with a single adjective," said Egan, referring to the verbal shorthand of many analysts who see the new pope as a "hard-liner."
George said that perhaps most persuasive to the cardinals gathered in seclusion was Ratzinger's stand on Western secularization and the waning faith of Catholics in developed nations.
Other issues, such as dealing with Islam, were discussed by cardinals publicly before the conclave. But the swift vote indicated that at least two-thirds of the voting cardinals rallied around Ratzinger's attitude on the most urgent issue for today's church.
At the previous conclave that elected Pope John Paul, George said, the most obvious challenges for the church came from communism in the East. "Twenty-six years later," he said, "the most difficult challenges of the church come from the West."
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