- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

He’s been called enigmatic, erudite and elegant.

Nearly three years into Benedict XVI’s papacy, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has managed to puzzle his detractors, who on the day he was elected pope, predicted a “papa ratzi” pontificate.

Instead, Benedict named himself after Pope Benedict XV, who headed the church during World War I, and Benedict of Nursia, the man who brought monasticism to Europe 15 centuries ago.

“[Among] the surprises of the past three years, there is this pope’s striking popularity, which I don’t believe has registered well on certainly North American radar screens,” said papal scholar George Weigel at an April 1 panel discussion sponsored by the Pew Forum. POPE-BEN-TIMELINE.jpg

“His weekly general audience on Wednesdays consistently draws crowds larger than or as large as John Paul II drew at the height of the Great Jubilee of 2000….This pope has touched something in the people of Italy, perhaps a hunger to be fed by a master teacher.”

Video:The Papal Visit

Instead of disciplining wayward Catholic theologians per his former job as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict has come out with encyclicals on hope (“Spe Salvi”) and love (“Deus Caritas Est”).

“He has great interior freedom, so you can expect the unexpected from him,” said the Rev. Joe Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press in San Francisco and theologian-in-residence at Ave Maria College near Naples, Fla.

The pope will be in the United States for six days this week for what may be his only visit to the world’s third-largest Catholic country. It is the ninth visit of a pontiff to American shores — counting two brief stopovers in Alaska by Pope John Paul II — beginning with Pope Paul VI’s visit in 1965.

His key message is expected to be an April 18 speech to the United Nations.

“It will be Benedict’s argument that what the world desperately needs today is a global moral consensus — that is, a consensus on fundamental moral truths that are universal and unchanging that can serve as a basis for things like protection of human rights and human dignity,” John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, said at the Pew Forum event.

“I think his analysis is that in an era in which you have several important players on the world stage — China and Iran come to mind — arguing that the whole concept of human rights is a sort of Western cultural artifact, I think the pope believes that the construction of a kind of moral consensus that we can all agree upon based on truths about human nature and open to the wisdom of spiritual traditions and religious traditions is a critical priority.”

Catholic pundits nationwide have been speculating on what other messages the pope will bring.

“He’s not going to offer a radical change in position nor some radical new idea or thought,” Father Fessio said. “But I have never heard him speak ever when I didn’t learn something new. It will be fresh, it will be relevant.”

The pope, he added, sends a message through each public gesture, such as his personally baptizing Magdi Allam, a well-known Italian convert from Islam the day before Easter.

In 1975, Father Fessio received his doctorate in theology from University of Regensburg, Germany, advised by none other than then-Father Ratzinger, his thesis director. The American priest still sees his mentor, as the pope’s former students gather at least once a year at Castel Gandolfo — the papal vacation spot — to meet with their old instructor.

“He is the master of the kind of presentation which is quite justified but has great impact,” he said. “Like Our Lord, he tells parables of heaven. He sees symbolism in everything. He will not just talk about Scripture, but about symbols.”

Such as the time of his birth. The pope was born at 4 a.m. on April 16, 1927, which was Holy Saturday. As that day is a traditional day to admit new converts to the church, little Joseph Alois Ratzinger was baptized at about 8 a.m.

“He sees that as a symbol of his life growing out of the church’s liturgy,” Father Fessio said. “His natural life [his birth] and supernatural life [his baptism] took place in the Sacred Triduum,” the three-day period encompassing Easter.

Anyone curious as to the papal agenda should reread the pope’s first sermon, given during Mass the morning of April 20, 2005, Father Fessio said.

“He said he’d implement the Second Vatican Council in faithful continuity with the church’s tradition,” the priest said. “That was the charter he gave himself. He said the Eucharist was the center of life for all Christians and it’d be the center of his pontificate.”

Pope Benedict has not been a strict continuation of Pope John Paul II, said Holger Zaborowski, assistant professor of philosophy at Catholic University and co-editor of three of the pope’s German-language books.

“There are tiny differences that you can see in the details,” the professor said. “His way of thinking is very continuous. It’s not like he was elected pope and he suddenly changed.

“John Paul II was more the poetical pope, the visionary. Benedict is into the church fathers and rethinking church tradition.”

Which may be why one of his most significant actions to date has been “Summorum Pontificum,” a document released last summer that freed priests around the world to say the Tridentine Mass (also called the Traditional Latin Mass) without their bishop’s prior approval. Even though the Mass was largely sidelined after Vatican II, Pope Benedict noted that the famous church council had never abandoned the traditional Mass.

It was a gesture that resounded well with traditional Catholics. However, others may be surprised at how personable this pope is, Mr. Weigel said.

“In the fall of 2005, … the pope met with some thousands of Italian 8-, 9- and 10-year-old kids who had all just made their first Holy Communions,” he said. “And his Q&A; with these kids is as masterful a presentation of some complex ideas in Catholic belief and practice to kids in a language that obviously resonated with them that you’ll ever see.

“So you have this remarkable combination of a walking encyclopedia of theological, philosophical and historical knowledge, but with a dramatic capacity to simplify in the best sense of the term. …

“It’s the kind of simplicity that only comes from having worked through the arguments and debates in a very detailed way and yet coming to a point of articulation that is accessible and that has proven remarkably popular not only in Rome, but wherever the pope has traveled.”

Mr. Allen suggested that there is a “disconnect” between Pope Benedict’s public impression and private personality and that his American observers may become avid fans.

“You will never meet a more gracious figure,” he said. “He is infinitely kind, and in some ways kind of shy, and he also has a surprisingly sharp sense of humor.”

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