Pondering the Pope

Benedict 01I've been admiring how much work Gary Stern, the Journal News religion reporter, has put into preparing for the upcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI. He put up an interactive Web site and publishes regular updates on his religion blog. On Sunday he published a lengthy article -- that ran throughout the Gannett kingdom, including USA TODAY -- looking at how people perceive Benedict:

On this Easter, as Benedict nears the end of his third year as pope, it's safe to say that he remains something of a white-robed enigma to most Americans, Catholic or otherwise.

"I don't think most people have figured him out, that's for sure," said the Rev. Thomas Berg, executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, a Catholic think tank based in Thornwood. "People may be scared away, since he is kind of an intellectual. A lot of people may not know how to get their hands around him."

Stern paints a picture of a bookish pope whose emphasis is focusing Catholics on Jesus. Stern also notes the irony that people thought that they knew exactly what they were getting from the Vatican's warden on doctrine (his previous position), as he'd been painted as the Pope's Rottweiler:

"All of that was something of a caricature to start with," said the Rev. Joseph Komonchak, a West Nyack native and veteran theologian at Catholic University in Washington. "But he has been far more collegial and accommodating than condemnatory. Temperamentally, he is a quiet person, shy, an intellectual. His main emphasis has been to draw Catholics back to what is central, what we have to offer the world, what we believe about Jesus Christ."

Stern's approach is to quote a ton of observers -- people who follow the church intensely and look for different qualities in the pope. The effect is a well-rounded picture of a complicated, confident. I liked this quote from John Allen:

"John Paul had the mastery of facial expressions, the just-right gesture, sound bites," said John Allen, a leading Catholic analyst and author of a pre-papal biography of Ratzinger. "Benedict doesn't speak in sound bites but in tersely crafted paragraphs. To understand what he's trying to say, you actually have to listen from start to finish, which is very much a challenge to our sound bite culture. That's why there is a tremendous gap between what the Catholic insider knows about him and what the average person knows."

It is this ability to listen from start to finish that is really separating the press corps between the men and the boys. Those who don't have the facility to listen to Benedict's complete thoughts are the ones who write the laughably bad stories. Those who are paying attention are able to grasp the full impact of his views.

Stern lightly makes fun of people who would label Benedict a conservative (for his Regensburg speech, restatement of Vatican condemnation of non-Catholic church bodies, etc.) and those who would call him a liberal because he meets with Muslims and Hans Kung. Instead Stern offers that Benedict's papal approach is to explain and explore classic Catholicism in a positive light:

Benedict's first two encyclicals, his papal letters, have been on love and hope. In the second, he wrote: "This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. The fact that it comes to us as a gift is actually part of hope."

In his 2007 book, "Jesus of Nazareth," the pope got down to Catholicism 101. He called it his search "for the face of the Lord."

"In his first three years as pope, he has tried to bring the people of the church back to the basics of the faith, back to the Eucharist, back to prayer as the center of Christian life," said George Weigel, a Catholic theologian and senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. Scholar and pope

benedict2 All in all, the piece is very helpful reading to people who don't follow the daily actions of Benedict. They get a complex picture of a gentle, loving and doctrinally affirming pope.

Interestingly enough, the headline on Stern's piece was, originally,

For many, still an enigma 3 years into papacy, Benedict XVI remains mystery to Americans

It's been changed to "Benedict XVI remains a mystery." Stern noted on his blog that many readers felt the word enigma was derogatory and negative. In this post, he explains the headline. Others complained that the story ran on Easter, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ. I also noticed a few other complaints. What did you think of the piece?

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