The smiling father

After two years of Pope Benedict, Joanna Bogle identifies some of the striking features which have characterized his pontificate thus far and offers some explanations for his great popularity

The eyes are kindly and smiling, the silver hair is neatly swept back, the face expresses simple, intent listening. He is leaning forward with eagerness: the conversation is engaging him completely. This is the kindly professor at work - the one whose lectures are so much more interesting than the others.

There was much discussion about Pope Benedict at his election, many confident assertions about what he would be like and what he would do. Now, over two years into his pontificate, we are finding out. He turns out to be, if naturally a shy man, also one who exudes openness and kindness, with an air of quiet purposeful-ness which establishes a sort of certainty and confidence.

Surprising his critics

Pope Benedict is winning hearts and minds on a scale that has astonished his critics. The crowds in St Peters Square are bigger than they have ever been -far exceeding the numbers that used to attend Pope John Pauls weekly Angelus gatherings. There were 50,000 people at his Palm Sunday Mass this year. The crowds at World Youth Day, with teenagers wading into the Rhine to greet him, praying with him in a massive candelit vigil on a summer night, and cheering him to the echo when he preached to them at morning Mass, look set to be outclassed by similar vast numbers in Sydney when he flies there next year for the 2008 event.

'The Church is alive, and the Church is young!' he told the world in his inaugural sermon - and the tone and style of his papacy thus far has echoed this, and given a renewed confidence to those who believe that there is indeed reason for hope as the Roman Catholic Church squares up to the challenges and possibilities of the twenty-first century.

They come to listen

This is a man who is not, and never was, any sort of rottweiler. This is a priest who, as a peritus at the Second Vatican Council, worked hard to see the presentation of a Faith that had everything to offer a battered world demoralized by two World Wars. This is an academic with a passion for truth, a believer for whom an incarnate God is the turning-

point of history, giving us the fullness of truth about ourselves and our destiny.

I'll be honest: I hadn't read any of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's books and knew his name only because he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I liked this idea: it seemed to me attractive to have something that guaranteed the 'brand name' and trustworthiness of what I was being given.

Why am I a Ratzinger fan? It's not as though he has the style that was part of John Paul, especially in the early years of his pontificate. No, this is a gentle retired

he is teaching the truth in a way that is dramatically appealing to people who are hungry for it

academic, with a massive reputation for brain-power, author of some forty books, fond of cats and Mozart. Why is he so popular?

It is because he is teaching - and teaching effectively - the truth in a way that is dramatically appealing to people who are hungry for it. He is able to build on the superb drama and vividness that Pope John Paul brought to the Church. There's even a cliche doing the rounds about this in Rome: with Pope John Paul, people came to look; now with Benedict they have stayed to listen.

And they are listening. Deus Caritas est, his first encyclical, sold in its hundreds of thousands in its first couple of weeks. A new question-and-answer catechism based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which of course he edited and produced as Cardinal Ratzinger) has proved a huge success.

He doesn't talk in soundbites but he does give us things that stay in the mind, and in the heart. Pope Benedict toldyoung people at World Youth Day 2005 that they should search for the truth - and only the fullness of truth, in Jesus Christ, would really satisfy. He told Europe in 2007 that Europe was facing 'its twilight in history' because it was turning its back on the glories of the Christian faith and 'losing confidence in its future'. At Regensburg

he memorably challenged both Islam and the Western secular world to explore the interface between faith and reason, between the reality of a God who made an ordered and logical world, and man's intellectual response to that reality.

No gimmicks

'He's easier to understand than Pope John Paul' is a comment frequently heard among Catholics. And it is true. John Paul could often be frankly obtuse, and even his easier works, like Veritatis Splendor, are not a simple read. Benedict, by contrast, for all his academic richness, can communicate simply.

Disappointments? Rumour says that right-wing American Catholics don't like his opposition to the Iraq war. Those who love traditional liturgy lap up his love of Latin and deep sense of liturgical tradition, but are unsettled by his ability to compromise, to be comfortable with groups such as Communion and Liberation or the charismatic movement. There are murmurs that, for all his commitment to orthodoxy and the beauty of his teachings, he is failing to appoint bishops who share these deep convictions and the ability to ensure they are taught in their dioceses.

Talking-points? Well, there is a new style about - and no, I don't mean red shoes and the reintroduction of the fur-trimmed cape and other more traditional paraphernalia, although these are indicative of an emphasis on the continuity of tradition. I mean in things like, for instance, the Compendium of the new Catechism, already mentioned, illustrated with glorious art from down the centuries, and bound in hardback with a pleasing cover, which is light years away from those dreary paperbacks with stick-men and gimmicky slogans. And the artwork was, it is said, chosen by Papa Benedict personally to make exactly this point.

There's an absence of gimmicks. The annual pop concert was gently abandoned. Babies get hugged and blessed by the score in St Peters Square, St Bernard dogs patted on an Alpine visit, formal visitors dazzled by a warm smile and ease of speech in a range of languages - but there'll be no on-stage encounters with Bob Dylan or tapping of feet to a rock-style band.

Benedict likes to emphasize simple, straightforward things that reconnect people with the idea of an unchanging and unchangeable doctrine and message that comes from the Apostles. One of his favourite examples is that of the martyrs of Abitene.

Clarity in teaching

In a not untypical Papa Benedict approach, he takes a relatively obscure point and uses it to illustrate something important: these martyrs were arrested by the authorities under Diocletian because they had gathered on a Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist, in defiance of imperial orders. Despite torture and the threat of death, they would not renounce this weekly act of worship: 'Sine domin-ico non possumus' - 'We cannot live without Sunday' And that cry, Benedict proclaims, is and must be ours too: 'The Sunday precept, therefore, is not a simple duty imposed from outside. To participate in the Sunday celebration and to be nourished by the Eucharistic bread is a need for a Christian, who in this way can find the necessary energy for the journey to be undertaken... A journey, moreover, that is not arbitrary; the way that God indicates through his law goes in the direction inscribed in the very essence of man. To follow the way means man's own fulfillment; to lose it, is to lose himself

All this, and I haven't mentioned sex once: not homosexual unions, not abortion, not women priests. Well - the message on each of these is not merely that the Church will not change her teachings but that she cannot. In the case of the first two, since they touch on crucial human realities at the core of any civilized community life, Christian politicians must oppose them and never allow them to become entrenched in law or in common custom. And in the case of the last: it's non-negotiably evident that the Lord chose twelve men to be his Apostles, and the Church is bound by this and cannot, will not, and has no desire to change it.

Firsthand experience

And social teachings? Poverty, war, the need for international aid in the face of natural or man-made disasters? The plight of exiles and of immigrants? A catty (and ignorant) correspondent to a feminist quarterly asked at the beginning of his pontificate if this was a man who had ever known hunger. The answer is yes. Like every other teenager in ruined Germany, and like his fellow-prisoners in the American-run camp, he went hungry. No alternative. The Americans were being as generous and decent as they could, but the food wasn't there. Once it did become available, it had to be doled out in rations, and there wasn't much of it - but there was no point in complaining.

He does know about war - been there. Among Germany's dead, uniformed and civilian, were schoolfriends, colleagues and cousins. He knows a bit about how Christian social teachings can help rebuild a ruined land. He's got a few ideas about justice and fairness and people having to treat each other decently, including at the international level. Knows a bit about what it's like to live under a totalitarian regime. Knows a bit about what it's like to be part of a pariah nation and having to accept the consequences.

This is a Pope who is doing a lot of good. He's 80, and is on record as saying he doesn't think it will be a long papacy. Fortunately he comes from a family tradition of longevity, and looks in excellent health.

No natural right-winger - his family were deeply anti-Nazi, probably vaguely monarchist in their essential loyalties, instinctively traditional, definitely on the side of the poor. He's no politician - never wanted to be anything other than a priest. He's no fool, and he's no dreamer either: he's perfectly well aware of what can be achieved and what can't. The Church won't massively revive in Europe in his pontificate, but he'll help it to survive and he can try to give it dedicated priests, enthusiastic young people, a restoration of beauty in its liturgy and a confidence in its moral and doctrinal teachings.

This is a good man, and he's a good successor to Peter at this time. We are fortunate to have him. There's work to be done, and Benedict must do it. Keep him in your prayers. \ND\

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