NEWS ANALYSIS: New Pope’s First Challenge May Be a Charm Offensive

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Pope Benedict XVI is, depending on whom you talk to, the “Panzerkardinal,” “God’s Rottweiler” or an unassuming and misunderstood man of deep, quiet faith.

Before his election as pope Tuesday (April 19), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was known as a stern disciplinarian, a sort of ecclesial Dr. No who toiled in a thankless job of keeping the theological troops in line.

In the wake of John Paul II’s energetic and charismatic papacy, Ratzinger faces a particular challenge of winning over the hearts of the faithful. Those who know him say the charm offensive will start by debunking the public persona that doesn’t fit the man behind it.

“The image of him as Panzerkardinal, I think, is completely ludicrous,” said the Rev. Augustine Di Noia, an American priest who served as Ratzinger’s undersecretary at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Di Noia, speaking to reporters in Rome before the start of the conclave that elected Ratzinger as pope, described him as “decisive,” “fearless” and a “saintly and spiritual man” with immense convictions.

But it doesn’t stop there, Di Noia said. “He’s kind of a simple person. He chuckles (and has) a certain childlike quality about him.”

Based on interviews with people who know him, the new pope is a soft-spoken, unassuming, gracious and self-effacing college professor. He is not, in other words, the man whose public image conveys all the warmth of a German auto plant.

Indeed, in his first remarks as pope, Benedict called himself a “simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord,” a man of “insufficient means” who threw himself on the mercy of God.

Before he was named in 1981 as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal watchdog, Ratzinger was a respected Bavarian theologian who, by all accounts, would have been content to spend the rest of his life surrounded by his books.

As a young theologian, Ratzinger exhibited a moderately progressive streak and had a reputation of being open to differing views. But as he became troubled by the student uprisings of the late 1960s, his views turned more conservative.

In his post at the Vatican, Ratzinger’s job was to monitor for any deviation from the official line, a job that doesn’t usually come across as warm and fuzzy, say friends and associates.

This is, after all, the office that used to carry the name “Inquisition,” and later published an index of forbidden books.

“Joseph Ratzinger had a thankless job of being the chief of the doctrinal patrol of the church, and needless to say that’s a position in which you do not always make friends,” said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the conservative journal First Things and a friend of Ratzinger’s for 20 years.

His job crafted and cemented two dueling images of Ratzinger.

For conservatives, he was the great bulwark of orthodoxy, defending the church from wishy-washy moral relativism. But for liberals, Ratzinger was more akin to “Darth Vader,” said John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for National Catholic Reporter, who wrote a book about Ratzinger.

His rank as dean of the College of Cardinals led many to think he was angling for the papal throne himself, or at least manipulating the process to install a hand-picked protege. Allen said neither image is accurate.

“He is one of the most humble, gracious and uncareerist men you will ever meet,” Allen said.

Regardless, Ratzinger’s reputation _ especially in the United States _ is already two steps ahead of him. Friends and colleagues bemoan the caricature that has grabbed the media’s attention.

“There couldn’t be more of a dissonance from him as a person and his public persona,” said Bernard Dobranski, dean of the Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich., who consulted with Ratzinger as the school was founded.

“It’s really a distorted view of what he’s really like. He’s really very kind, very gentle, soft-spoken, a bit shy.”

Ratzinger enters the papacy with the kind of baggage _ legitimate or otherwise _ that few of his recent predecessors had to endure. The affable Angelo Roncalli (John XXIII) was quickly known as “Good Pope John” after his election in 1958, and even the short-lived Albino Luciani (John Paul I) was known as “the smiling pope” for his low-key nature.

Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) quickly engaged his flock and perhaps set impossibly high standards for his successor. John Paul II was as outgoing as Benedict XVI is reserved. In his first appearance as pope, Benedict seemed to scan the crowds in St. Peter’s Square nervously.

“He’s a great deal more reticent,” Neuhaus said. “You have to draw him out. With John Paul, you didn’t have to draw him out. He was, to say the least, a very outgoing personality.”

Church leaders argue that Benedict’s flock will soon warm to their new shepherd, and he to them, once he finds his footing. “Before you draw any lines in the sand, give him a chance,” said Cardinal Edward Egan of New York.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said the world would soon see Ratzinger’s kinder, gentler side.

“He’s someone that you could walk into a Starbucks (with) and sit down and have a coffee with and be totally at ease,” Mahony told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s just delightful.”

_ Jeff Diamant contributed to this report from Rome.


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