Benedict's appeal moves beyond 'caricature'
Posted 4/16/2006 9:26 PM
By Eric J. Lyman, Special for USA TODAY
VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI made no groundbreaking statements in
his first Easter message as pontiff. He prayed for peace in Iraq, called for an
"honorable solution" to nuclear crises — an apparent reference to Iran — and
voiced support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Nevertheless, the Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square was fraught with symbolism
for the new pope. Easter coincided with the pope's 79th birthday and came three
days before his first anniversary as pontiff.
The past year has revealed Benedict as a surprisingly popular and empathetic
pontiff, Vatican experts say. That contrasts with the reputation he developed for
hard-line theological views in his previous role as prefect of the Congregation of
the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's top enforcer on doctrinal issues.
"There was a caricature drawn of the Holy Father when he was a cardinal that was
never entirely accurate," says the Rev. Thomas Williams, dean of theology at
Rome's Regina Apostolorum University. "Almost everyone — liberals and
conservatives — saw him this way, and the change has been a surprise to many
Benedict's popularity differs from that of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who
was accorded almost rock star status by the legions of banner-waving young fans
who turned out to see him. By contrast, Benedict's admirers seem to be older,
quieter and more introspective.
"I loved John Paul and I love Benedict, but the personality of each man appeals to different sides of the faithful," says Carlo Angelo
Sanzio, 43, a worker at a coffee bar who says he has attended most of the Sunday Masses at the Vatican over the past 10 years. "The
people here now are less likely to shout and cheer (than those who came to see John Paul) and are more likely to pray and reflect. My
friends say you would come to experience John Paul, and you come to listen to and learn from Benedict."
People have been coming to listen to Benedict in large numbers. The crowd at the pope's Easter celebration Sunday — held under
clear skies and in cool temperatures — was an estimated 100,000, according to the Carabinieri, one of the police units that provide
security at Vatican events. Even Benedict's routine Sunday Masses attract crowds of about 25,000 in good weather, which is similar to
the numbers that came to see John Paul before he became ill in the final years of his life. John Paul died April 2, 2005.
"To the extent that the pope's popularity can be judged by straight numbers, the numbers have been growing," police Sgt. Antonio
Benedict's reputation as a rigid enforcer of Catholic teachings has softened during the past year as people have watched him closely,
Vatican observers say.
"Anyone who has followed Benedict knows he can be a bulldog when it comes to matters of faith and morality," says John Allen,
Rome correspondent for the weekly U.S. newspaper National Catholic Reporter and the author of a biography of the pope. "But what
is surprising is in other areas, the pope is proving to be softer and more willing to listen."
Benedict's relationship with Hans Küng, a controversial Swiss theologian barred by John Paul from teaching theology in 1980, shows
a forgiving side of the pope. According to Allen's biography of Benedict, Küng had been a colleague and close friend of Joseph
Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict XVI — starting in the early 1960s. The men parted ways in 1968 as Ratzinger became more
conservative and Küng more liberal in the wake of student riots that swept Germany that year.
John Paul never met with Küng, but Benedict and Küng arranged to meet within Benedict's first months as pope. It was the first time
the two had met in 36 years. In the meeting, the two men disagreed over theological issues but discussed common ground regarding
ethics and the need to move the church forward after John Paul's death, according to the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero.
"That meeting was extraordinarily important because it showed the human and sentimental side of the pope," says veteran Il
Messaggero Vatican reporter, Orazio Petrosillo, an author of two books about the Holy See. "This is from a man who was for years
seen almost as a machine."
The pontiff has said he will not support the ordination of female priests but is open to other ways of increasing the role of women in
Miranda Bassetti, 39, a retail clerk from Viterbo, north of Rome, says it took time for the pontiff to grow on people. "Benedict is an
acquired taste," she says. "His intellectualism isn't immediately appealing."
According to Sergio Ottomanelli, 58, a old deacon who works part time in a hotel catering to pilgrims visiting the Vatican, Benedict's
intellectualism is part of his charm. "John Paul was a saint on Earth, but Benedict is different," Ottomanelli says. "Benedict is an
example of what a mere human can achieve through extraordinary faith, intelligence and force of will."
Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
This article originally appeared in
Pier Paolo Cito via AP
Pope Benedict XVI arrives in St. Peter's Square
at the Vatican to celebrate the Easter mass and
to give his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" speech from
the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica.