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Deciphering Benedict XVI

The Baltimore Sun

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.

"His goal is to present the faith and step out of the way," Gibson said. Not that he is a "placeholder pope," as many assumed he would be. Still, his ascension came late in his life, at age 78, by which age Pope John Paul had already been pope 20 years.

His low-watt style has not meant a hands-off approach, however. He promotes Catholicism as a beautiful way of life rather than a list of thou-shalt-nots. In that sense, Gibson says, he has shifted from bad cop to good cop without easing his underlying rigidity.

"Affirmative orthodoxy" is the phrase used by John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter to describe Pope Benedict's attempt at forging "a strong defense of classic Catholic doctrine and practice, pitched in the most positive fashion possible."

A good illustration, he has written, is the pope's first encyclical, or letter, God is love. It speaks to sexual morality but without reciting proscribed behaviors such as premarital sex and abortion.

First good look

For most Americans, and many of the country's 70 million Catholics, Pope Benedict's six-day trip to Washington and New York will be their first real look at him since April 19, 2005, when white smoke over St. Peter's Square heralded a new pope.

"People are going to meet someone who comes across far more like a friendly, courteous, knowledgeable grandfather than some kind of enforcer," said Catholic scholar George Weigel.

Pope Benedict may not possess Pope John Paul's "pyrotechnical personality," but Weigel - who has known him 20 years - said he has drawn larger crowds to his regular Wednesday audiences at St. Peter's Square than Pope John Paul did. "He has a different kind of winsome personality. It doesn't have to be snap, crackle and pop all the time."

Physically the pope is a slight man. He speaks "carefully but confidently," Gibson says, not in Pope John Paul's rich baritone but in the "level intonation" of a professor. He speaks English well.

By all accounts, Pope Benedict had been looking forward to retirement in Bavaria when his fellow cardinals elected him.

Born in Germany, he spent much of his first half-century there. While a teenager during World War II, he joined the Hitler Youth, as was mandatory for all high school students then. He was drafted and assigned to an anti-aircraft unit. He deserted, returned home and was sent for a time to an American prisoner of war camp. Once the war ended, he began studying for the priesthood.

After three decades as a fast-rising theologian, Ratzinger was made head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department responsible for defending orthodoxy in the church, in 1981.

It was that role that earned him the sobriquets "Rottweiler," "Grand Inquisitor" and "Enforcer." The reputation may have gotten new life in 2006, when the pope gave the speech that was decried by many Muslims and some Christians.

Pope Benedict's theme was the critical link between faith and reason. He attacked the idea of holy war, using a quote attributed to a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who battled Muslim armies: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

The speech led to street protests in Indonesia, Turkey and Syria. In Somalia, a nun was murdered, apparently in retribution. The pope apologized, saying he had been misunderstood and had "profound respect" for Islam.

"It's very hard to tell what he was trying to do," said Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He said it may be that Pope Benedict "kind of forgot" that as pope any such utterance would ricochet around the world. Or it may have been a calculated, if combative, attempt to spark more probing discussions within Islam.

Archbishop O'Brien said of the lecture: "I'm not so sure that was a mistake. What has happened since then might prove that to be the case. There is blossoming a dialogue between Muslims and Roman Catholics."

Others say the pope erred and seemed to forget he was not merely an academic speaking to fellow intellectuals.

"Clearly he should have added a line saying, 'Of course I don't agree with the emperor,' " said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. Reese says he believes, however, that the pope meant no offense to Islam: "Frankly, he wishes Catholics were as devout as Muslims are."

Strict on doctrine

Reese knows firsthand Pope Benedict's insistence on rigid adherence to doctrine. In early 2005 then-Cardinal Ratzinger forced Reese to resign as editor of the Jesuit magazine America for publishing articles that questioned the Vatican's writings on same-sex marriage. Others in the church have been sanctioned for similar doctrinal misdeeds.

Reese said what made the punishment palatable was that he and other liberals were not silenced altogether but could still write. "I can live with that," Reese said.

Meanwhile, notes Gibson, religious conservatives have chafed at some of the pope's decisions, including his chosen successor for his old Vatican post.

Such issues should have little impact on the pope's reception when he arrives Tuesday.

Whether Catholics agree with his positions, no one expects anything but a warm and enthusiastic welcome. The atmosphere may be less exuberant than during Pope John Paul's visits but will be celebratory all the same.

"Just wait and see," Reese said. "You're going to have thousands of people cheering and screaming and singing when he celebrates these Masses. If they had 10 times the number of tickets, they would have people who wanted to come."

scott.calvert@baltsun.com

Opinion of Pope Benedict XVI

................................. Total Catholics

Opinion of Benedict XVI % %

Favorable 52 74

Very favorable 18 36

Unfavorable 18 11

Don't know/can't rate 30 15

How much have you heard about Benedict?

A lot 18 37

A little 57 48

Nothing/don't know 25 15

Number of respondents 1,001 215

Pope's job in promoting relations with other faiths

Excellent/good 39 64

Only fair/poor 40 26

Don't know 21 10

[Sources: National survey conducted Marsh 24-29 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

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