Benedict relies on words, not John Paul’s dramatic images

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c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Pope John Paul II would kneel to kiss the ground of foreign countries. He unleashed doves to signal peace. He placed a prayer of atonement in cracks of Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

And the cameras clicked.

John Paul, a former actor, reveled in the power of image.

In contrast, his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives in the United States next week (April 15), lets words define him. Benedict, an academic and man of letters, prefers to deflect the spotlight. Observers say he expects his words, if not his image, to last.

Americans who remember the excitement of John Paul’s U.S. visits will see a very different pontiff when 80-year-old Benedict sets foot on American soil. The two are a study in contrasting styles, and, to a lesser degree, of substance.

“Pope John Paul II was an actor. He wrote plays. He brought a sense of the dramatic to the papacy,” said Monsignor Kevin Irwin, dean of the school of theology at Catholic University in Washington. “Pope Benedict spent his life in libraries and university classrooms.”

John Paul, a master of the iconic gesture, created the kind of buzz associated with a rock star during his whirlwind visits. When Benedict comes, expect a quieter, slower but nonetheless charming pontiff, say people who have followed both men.

“Benedict does not have the huge following in the press and on the street as John Paul,” said John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. “But over time, if people reflect on what he says, he does have the potential to shape the future of the Catholic Church in this country.”

Benedict commonly is described as quiet, even shy. He worked for John Paul as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith _ one of the church’s top positions _ and was said to be wary of John Paul’s celebrity status, fearing people would confuse personality with faith.

“He’s not one to be out there shaking hands and kissing babies,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit and senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center. “He would rather go home and curl up with a theology book than stand out in front of thousands of screaming kids. But Pope John Paul thrived on that.”

The difference between the two pontiffs became clear almost immediately.

Five days after Benedict’s election as pope in April 2005, he first planned to hold his elaborate installation inside, not outside, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He reasoned that the basilica’s architecture directed attention toward Christ, not the pope, according to the Italian Web site chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it.

Yet an indoor ceremony would have left nearly a half million people outside, watching on video feeds like football fans stuck in an arena parking lot. John Paul, some observers said, would never have dreamed of limiting the audience at such a crucial event.

Benedict eventually was persuaded to move the proceedings outdoors, but the episode showed early on that he was not a pope to seek the spotlight. The focus, he reportedly said at the time, belonged on the Mass, not a particular pope.

The contrasts between the two popes, though, do not extend to the hot-button issues of gender, divorce and sexuality that divide American Catholics. John Paul had handpicked Benedict _ when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger _ to be the church’s chief enforcer of doctrine. Both popes have staunchly supported restrictions against priests marrying, ordaining women priests, birth control and abortion.

“Here in the U.S. we are used to a new administration coming in and shaking things up,” Reese said. “But in the papacy it is the opposite. The idea is `We are eternal and unchanging.”’

Since the 1960s, Ratzinger has been one of the church’s most prolific theologians, holding German faculty posts at the University of Bonn, University of Munster, University of Tubingen and University of Regensburg.

Then he moved to his high-profile job in the Vatican.

“He had the thankless job of telling liberation theologians that they had to choose between Marx and Christ and others that if they denied the Trinity they were out of the club,” said Tracey Rowland, author of “Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI” (Oxford University Press).

Back then, Ratzinger was dubbed God’s Rottweiler. Yet since his election, he has shown a more compassionate side. He has not satisfied the hopes of hard-line conservatives, nor has he been the draconian pope that many liberals feared.

“His image has softened and he has been able to show a more affectionate side,” Rowland said. In an authorized children’s book written by his personal secretary, Benedict’s life story is told through the eyes of a cat.

His first papal encyclical was on love. The second was on hope. Both, described by some church-watchers as clear and compassionate, were striking for what was missing.

“There was no finger-wagging in either,” said Catholic University’s Irwin. “Pope Benedict is not here to be the corrector. His role has changed.”

John Paul may have been a tough act to follow, in many ways, but church observers say his efforts to take the papacy global helped pave the road that Benedict now travels.

“The major aspect of the job is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus,” Wister said. “In that respect, the two popes are exactly the same. It’s foolish to think that a new pope will change doctrine. What is different is the way they proclaim the doctrine.”

(Carol Ann Campbell writes for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)

KRE/JM END CAMPBELL

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Benedict relies on words, not John Paul’s dramatic images

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c. 2008 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Pope John Paul II would kneel to kiss the ground of foreign countries. He unleashed doves to signal peace. He placed a prayer of atonement in cracks of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. And the cameras clicked. John Paul, a former actor, reveled in the power of image. In contrast, his […]

Comments are closed.