By ANN RODGERS
June 15, 2005
"The pope is here!" a man shouted in Italian one morning last week. Cheers rose from 35,000 as Benedict appeared, standing in a white Jeep-like popemobile. It circled the square, moving slowly as the 78-year-old pope, whose mane of white hair matched his vestments, waved to the faithful.
Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh, who attended a recent audience, was astonished to see the aged pope reach down from the moving vehicle to touch pilgrims' hands and pat the heads of children. He had always admired the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, but knew him to be reserved and self-effacing.
"The early signs are that he is committed to being the best pastoral pope he can be," Wuerl said. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger focused on his assigned duty to guard against error. As pope he knows he is called to do far more, Wuerl said.
"The way in which he has taken this on, it's almost a change in personality, but it's not. He is adapting his style to the exigencies of the office," Wuerl said. "What we are seeing is a warmth, a conscious effort to reach out."
His crowds are far larger than those of Pope John Paul II at the same time last year. Sunday addresses from his apartment window have drawn up to 100,000 people. And so far, to the surprise of many, the new pope's words and deeds have drawn sharper criticism from the Catholic far right than from the left.
John Allen, Vatican analyst of the liberal National Catholic Reporter, analyzed nearly 45,000 words that Benedict spoke in his first 45 days. They proved mostly positive, not the attacks on secularism and heresy many expected from Ratzinger, Allen said.
"There is an obvious sense of alarm from the right that this pontificate will not deliver the strong conservative agenda that that wing of the church was expecting," said Allen, who just completed his second biography of Ratzinger/Benedict.
On the left, Allen said: "They are holding their breath. A few say they are pleasantly surprised by what they have seen so far, but most are still living in a state of alarm that the crackdown they fear may still be coming."
Most Catholics, Allen noted, don't belong to either camp, have only good will toward Benedict and seem pleased with what they have seen of him.
Commitment to Christian unity and to good relations with non-Christian faiths has been among his strongest themes. On May 8 Benedict, the first pope from a heavily Protestant nation, became the first pope to send greetings and prayers to the national synod of the Reformed Church of France.
Christian unity was a major theme in his first trip outside Rome, to a Eucharistic festival in Bari, Italy, where 200,000 gathered to see him in late May. Bari is a sacred site for Orthodox Christians because the bones of St. Nicholas are there. Benedict again called for Christian unity - and failed to denounce liturgical abuses, which conservatives had hoped he would.
"Precisely here in Bari ... land of meeting and dialogue with Christian brothers of the East, I would like to confirm my wish to assume as a fundamental commitment to work with all my energies on the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all the followers of Christ," he said.
There are signs that the Orthodox may respond more readily to Benedict than they did to John Paul, who had longed to visit Russia. "There is a more positive and open tone now from some of them. I fully expect Benedict to go to Moscow," Allen said.
John Paul remains a difficult act to follow. Many Italians still call him "the Holy Father" and Benedict "the successor to the Holy Father," said the Rev. Richard Martin Mackowski, emeritus professor of biblical studies at the Pontifical Oriental Institute. It is not a slight toward Benedict, but a sign of love for the man Mackowski calls John Paul the Great.
Like John Paul, Benedict is popular with the young, Mackowski said. They like him for the same reasons that some of their elders resented Ratzinger.
"The youngsters are looking for truth and for someone who stands for the truth, someone who isn't going to obfuscate any issues. He's going to tell them just the way it is," Mackowski said.
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