Sunday, April 24, 2005

A gentler image of new Pope emerging in his 1st days, but tough decisions ahead


VATICAN CITY (AP) - Pope Benedict has pushed the right buttons in his first days as pontiff, softening his image as an austere theologian, inviting the chief rabbi of Rome to his installation and promising to keep up his popular predecessor's meetings with Roman Catholic youth.

The 78-year German-born Pope, known as the Vatican's hardline defender of the faith, was formally installed Sunday. It is still not clear whether he intends to take major initiatives or serve more as a transitional figure after the 26-year papacy of John Paul.

Those who know the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger say his decisions will not be made to please the masses.

"He has never sought popularity," Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who spent years at the Vatican before his transfer to Dublin, Ireland, told Italian state television. "This has left him free to pursue the truths as he sees them."

As head of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for more than two decades, the new Pope played a significant role in shaping Vatican policy under John Paul. Some clues to Benedict's papacy should be clear in the coming months when decisions are finally made on issues left pending during John Paul's long decline:

-The Vatican has been preparing to release a document, in the works for more than five years, on homosexuality and the priesthood. An earlier draft suggested that gays should not be ordained, but the latest draft had been expected to be more nuanced.

-A proposal to beatify Second World War Pope Pius XII has been under study for years. Jewish groups have vocally opposed the idea of Pius being put on the path to sainthood, claiming he did not do enough to prevent the Holocaust. This may be a particularly sensitive issue for Benedict, who has acknowledged joining the Hitler Youth at age 14 and then served in the German military.

-A U.S. church law that gives bishops broader power to discipline sexually abusive priests has been temporarily extended beyond the March 1 deadline. Chicago Cardinal Francis George said the new Pope indicated he will preserve the law.

Before he became Pope, Benedict was deeply involved in the Vatican's response to the abuse crisis. He and several other cardinals had upset victims by suggesting that widespread American media coverage of abusive clergy was "a planned campaign" that overstated the problem.

However, at last month's Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, in an apparent reference to the crisis, wrote a meditation denouncing "filth" in the church, "even among those . . . in the priesthood."

Unlike popes who have come from the outside, Benedict is the ultimate Vatican insider who needs no guidance on how the bureaucracy works. He speedily reconfirmed all the top officials, with whom he has worked closely with through the years.

But since his election Tuesday in one of the quickest conclaves in recent history, an emerging image of a humble and welcoming pastor has surprised many - although friends say his reputation as a dour German was unfair.

Although he may lack his Polish predecessor's charisma, Benedict has seemed comfortable greeting and blessing the crowds that quickly form when he appears outside the Vatican walls. In an audience with the College of Cardinals on Friday, he was particularly solicitous with the elderly and ailing, quickly rising from his chair to embrace them. Others knelt and kissed his hand.

In his first address Wednesday, Benedict sketched the outlines of his papacy, suggesting continuity with John Paul.

He committed himself to an "an open and sincere dialogue" with other faiths and trying to reverse the decline in church attendance and vocations in the West.

He also appears interested in keeping up efforts to end the nearly 1,000-year estrangement with Orthodox churches, which broke with the Roman church over papal authority and disputes about the liturgy. One of the late pope's unfulfilled dreams was to visit Russia, the most populous Orthodox country.

On Monday, Benedict plans to visit the Rome basilica built over the tomb of St. Paul, who helped bring Christianity to regions on both sides of the current Catholic-Orthodox divide.

Italy's Jewish community welcomed the invitation to chief Rome rabbi Riccardo di Segni to the Pope's installation mass on Sunday that was accompanied by a pledge to keep up the dialogue between Catholics and Jews.

The rabbi could not attend because Sunday was the first day of Passover, but he was pleased to be asked, said Riccardo Pacifici, spokesman for the Jewish community in Rome.

Benedict immediately accepted an invitation to attend the Church's World Youth Day event in Cologne, Germany, in mid-August, an event dear to John Paul and that also will give the new Pope an occasion to be feted by his fellow Germans. There has been no word on other travel plans, although he was quickly invited by the church and government to John Paul's Poland.

Several cardinals have said the new Pope realizes his papacy will not be a long one, but that's not necessarily an indication of the kind of mark Benedict intends to make.

"Age isn't important. There were some very short papacies which did great work," said Claudio Cardinal Hummes of Brazil, citing Pope John XXIII, who served from 1958-63. John convened the Second Vatican Council, which enacted modernizing reforms that Benedict pledged he would continue to follow.


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