April 22, 2008 / 7:53 AM / 10 years ago

U.S. trip softens pope's image

NEW YORK (Reuters) - He came, they saw, he conquered. Pope Benedict arrived in the United States with a reputation as a stern Catholic doctrinaire and left the faithful with an image of a kindly pastor.

<p>Pope Benedict XVI greets worshippers as he arrives at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, April 16, 2008. REUTERS/Molly Riley (UNITED STATES)</p>

“Pope of Hope” read a headline in New York’s Daily News. El Diario, a tabloid for the Spanish-speaking minority that makes up a growing part of the U.S. Catholic Church, hailed the “Ola de Paz” (Wave of Peace).

The impression Benedict made surprised even American Catholics who study Benedict’s role as head of the 1.1-billion-strong Church.

“This was a very successful trip, and I didn’t fully anticipate that,” said Chester Gillis, theology professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

“Instead of being the distant theologian breathing the rarefied air of the Vatican, he came down to the ground and was warm and charming and sensitive in what he said.”

Thomas Noble, a papal historian at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said: “There’s obviously a human dimension and a pastoral dimension there that hasn’t always been in evidence.”

The applause for Benedict had little to do with charisma. Shy and scrupulous, he read his speeches ponderously and spared the crowd-pleasing gestures. But his message was carefully honed and he conveyed it daily in word and deed.

Even critics -- such as the victims of sexual abuse by priests -- seemed disarmed by Benedict’s frank talk about the crisis and ended up mostly calling for further action.


Comparing him to more charismatic popes, Alicia Colon wrote in the New York Sun: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a Roncalli, a Wojtyla or a Ratzinger who wears the white robes and miter. It’s the words that will always resonate in our hearts. It’s not the singer, it’s the song.”

Gillis said Benedict made sure that song had wide appeal.

“It was a something-for-everyone trip,” he said. “For conservative Catholics, he hit the general notes, but for liberal Catholics, he didn’t pounce on them as some had anticipated. I thought it was orchestrated beautifully.”

His approach to the sexual abuse scandal hit the right note, he said. “It’s like ‘Rome gets it,'” Gillis said.

Benedict’s upbeat message was also well-suited to Americans’ self-image as a “can do” nation. “It was probably better to hear uplifting things rather than condemnations,” he said.

Rev. Gerald Fogarty, a Church historian at the University of Virginia, said media reports preceding the visit missed a key factor in the way Catholics see Benedict.

“I was sure there would be a good turnout because people are looking for moral leadership, whether they agree with him or not,” he said. “He’s not a charismatic figure, and that’s good.”

Noble said Benedict’s transformation began when he became pope in 2005 after being the Vatican’s doctrinal chief as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).


“It’s like moving from being head of a branch office to becoming CEO,” he said. “His strict reputation at the CDF was actually built up on a very small number of high-profile cases. The day-to-day work he did there wasn’t considered newsworthy.”

The visit has raised expectations that the Church will take further steps to heal the wounds caused by the abuse crisis.

But several priests and professors said most U.S. bishops known to have protected pedophiles have already been replaced and most bishops have already met with abuse victims.

Cardinal William Levada, Benedict’s successor at the CDF, denied U.S. press reports that the Vatican would change its laws to make it easier to pursue errant priests, saying it had already taken the needed steps.

Monsignor Charles Guarino, a canon lawyer for the Rockville Centre diocese on Long Island who worked with Benedict at the CDF, said he could not see any laws that still needed changing.

But, referring to Benedict’s meeting with victims, he added: “This was not just a sound bite moment, a picture for people to see and then it’s back to business as usual.”

One symbolic gesture lay Catholics often suggest is that Benedict remove Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston when the abuse scandal broke there in 2002, from his ceremonial post as archpriest of Saint Mary Major Basilica in Rome.

“Maybe they could put him in a monastery to make jams and jellies for the rest of his life,” remarked one Catholic, who promptly asked not to be named.

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