Pope Benedict XVI: The New Shepherd

It's hard to follow a superstar; will the new Pope with the fierce reputation be able to take up where John Paul II left off?

  • Pope Benedict XVI thinks the church is like a symphony orchestra. Both abide by strict rules designed to promote both majesty and mystery. Both have many parts but one glorious message; many players but one leader they all must follow. And like a Pope, a conductor is applauded before he lifts the baton.

    Even though Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had been proclaimed the front runner, Pope John Paul II's strong right hand, he was an introvert, bookish, had always been able to walk from his apartment to the Vatican without attracting much notice. But that would all change just three days after his 78th birthday, when the papal conclave's fourth ballot gave him the two-thirds vote of the Cardinals needed to become the 265th Pope. Crowds milled in St. Peter's Square, watching the tin chimney, waiting for the white smoke that would signal a choice had been made. Inside the Sistine Chapel the Cardinals wrestled with the stove in the corner just left of the entrance. "They were trying to get enough chemicals on the fire to make the smoke white," recalls Chicago's Francis Cardinal George. "The stove backed up, pouring smoke into the chapel." Outside, when the first tendrils appeared, they were gray and vague. But in time they whitened, and then the bells pealed, and people came running into the square from all directions to hear the news, "Habemus Papam!" We have a Pope! And then the transformation began.

    A wave of welcome came washing over the small man who stepped out onto the balcony. "Viva il Papa!" the crowd chanted, and he smiled, raised his hands and circled his arms, like a large bird at lift-off. Typical Pope behavior, but not typical of Ratzinger. In fact, he used to wonder whether the Holy Spirit was really in charge of these decisions, given how many Popes throughout history had been the kind of men of whom the Spirit would hardly approve. "You know, we believe grace comes with the office," said Cardinal George. "When he came out on the balcony and started waving his arms, I thought, 'It's working! I've never seem him make those gestures before!'"

    When that first audience was over, the new Pope and his Cardinals dined on bean soup, veal cordon bleu and ice cream, offered their new leader a champagne toast and sang to him, the lover of Mozart, their many languages finding one in common.

    And so the concert begins.

    For the past few weeks the commentariat had debated the merits of a red or blue Pope, a progressive or a conservative, First World or Third, a creature of the future or the past. The last conclave had occurred in the pre-cable-news dark ages, which allowed for a measure of mystery. This election took place in the glare of the 24-hour media and was so swift and smooth that the Cardinals' message seemed clear. By picking a traditionalist, they get continuity; by choosing an experienced manager, they restore administrative discipline; in a 78-year-old who has had a cerebral hemorrhage, they get, in effect, a transitional figure. In an old Pope from old Europe rather than a fresh face from the thriving Third World church, the Vatican seemed to be making a last stand to win Europe back for Jesus.

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