Pope Benedict is coming to America
By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict is coming to America and American Catholics may be in for some surprises.
Like Catholics globally, American Catholics are still mesmerized by the 27-year papacy of the late John Paul II and will get their first close-up look at Benedict next week when he visits Washington and New York.
Known as a fierce conservative when elected three years ago, he has surprised people with his gentle manner and stressing of the positive in Catholicism rather than the negative.
"The differences between the two popes is more stylistic than substantive," said Rev. Tom Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
"They both hold the same theological views, the same views about Church doctrine, Church teaching and Church practices but their styles are very different," he said.
Indeed, John Paul was a larger-than-life personality who, because of his acting background, knew how to dominate the stage and ignite a crowd.
Benedict, who will mark both his 81st birthday as well as the third anniversary of his election during the trip, is reticent and shy but also charming.
"I do think that to some extent there is a disconnect between the public impression of this man and the private personality. You will never meet a more gracious figure," said John Allen, a prominent U.S. Catholic author and journalist.
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Allen, speaking last week at the Pew Forum On Religion and Public Life in Washington, said even Church liberals had stopped seeing Benedict as "a sort of Darth Vader" and now give him high marks for his papacy.
When he was elected, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger brought with him the baggage of his role as the Church's chief doctrinal enforcer, a position he held for nearly 25 years.
He now seems not so much an enigma but someone who takes time to get to understand.
An opinion poll by the Pew Forum this month showed that fewer Catholics in the United States now automatically attach the "conservative" label to his name and an increasing number identify him as moderate or even liberal.
George Weigel, a leading American lay theologian and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, has described the change as a Catholic "hunger to be fed by a master teacher."
"This man so widely regarded as a kind of enforcer, a kind of heavy, turns out in this role (teacher) to be the gentle and brilliant grandfather who knows how to explain things and make the most complex parts of Catholic doctrine and practice make sense to ordinary people," Weigel said at the Pew Forum event.
Since his election, Benedict has seen his role as a strong re-assertion of a traditional Catholic identity but with a positive spin -- what Allen calls "affirmative orthodoxy."
While some Muslims, Jews and Protestants have seen some of his actions and comments as alienating, Benedict has offered his own flock a clearer sense of what makes them Catholic.
"I think Benedict's diagnosis is that people are far too familiar with what the Catholic Church is against rather than what it's for ... so I think his effort is to try to present a positive vision of what the Catholic Church represents," Allen said.
Benedict, a professor and prolific author before he was elected, seems to have settled well into his role of being chief teacher and leaving more administrative affairs to his aides.
Although he was formed socially and culturally in Europe, he has a deep awareness of the religious vitality of U.S. society.
"I think he is going to be an inspiration but at the same time challenging," said Reese.
"We are the richest, most powerful country in the world and he has an obligation to come here and challenge us to use our wealth and our power for good," he said.
Vatican officials also said the pope will seek to heal wounds from the sexual abuse scandal that shook the Church in the United States and urge reconciliation with victims.
Before his election as pontiff in 2005, then Cardinal Ratzinger went out on a limb to decry the "filth" in the Church.
(Editing by Stephen Weeks)