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 CNS Story:

VATICAN LETTER Apr-29-2005 (730 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Pope hopes to make Christ's light shine, but spotlight's on him

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI began his papacy by declaring that his task was to make shine "not his own light, but that of Christ."

That hasn't always been easy during his first days, as cheering crowds, a curious press and excited church officials have kept the spotlight on the 265th pontiff.

But in public appearances, Pope Benedict has already adopted a somewhat lower-key style than his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Some Vatican officials are predicting a less personalistic papacy in the years to come, with more focus on the message and less on the messenger.

As the pope said at his opening Mass April 24, his program of governance is "not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen ... to the word and will of the Lord."

The understated approach seemed evident in the new pope's meeting with journalists April 23. He kept it short, simple and to the point, giving a 10-minute talk.

Twenty-six years ago, his predecessor had surprised reporters by wading into the crowd and fielding questions. Pope Benedict simply stood up at the end and asked people to recite the Our Father together. In doing so, he appeared to signal that he had little interest in being a media superstar.

Another practice that seemed destined to disappear under the new pope was the long "baciamano" line after every audience, which typically included VIPs, book authors, artists and anyone who had enough of a connection at the Vatican to get a front-row ticket and a chance to kiss the pope's ring.

The global trips that propelled Pope John Paul into the world's awareness are likely to be few and far between under Pope Benedict.

"I would doubt if he'll travel much. He's starting out at a bit of a disadvantage, since he's 78," said Cardinal Wilfrid F. Napier of Durban, South Africa.

That should make his Rome appearances all the more significant. So far, Pope Benedict has been greeted with great warmth and has returned it in his own way: with a broad smile, a wave and an occasional handclasp above his head.

He's even kissed a baby or two. But the crowds also seem to sense that his comfort level with physical contact is less than his predecessor's. For most of his papacy, Pope John Paul would allow himself to be buffeted by the outstretched arms of those seeking a handshake, a touch or a blessing; he even lost his papal ring once or twice in the process (though it was returned).

At his first general audience April 27, Pope Benedict gave the crowd a treat when he spoke in five languages, then added a couple of lines in Polish. After Pope John Paul, multilingual proficiency is something that is hard to imagine any pontiff doing without.

Pope Benedict also made a point of raising his hand in greeting as the names of each cheering group of pilgrims was read out.

He has not engaged in much ad-libbing or repartee with the crowd, even when Italian young people try to engage him with cries of "Ben-e-detto" in the same singsong way they used to chant "Giovanni Paolo."

Pope Benedict's modest manner seems to be making a good impression with the people who come to see him.

One young U.S. Catholic who attended the pope's inauguration Mass said Pope Benedict struck him as a "saint in disguise."

Rose Marie Lombard, a lay evangelist from Rochester, N.Y., echoed the comments of several other pilgrims when she said the new pontiff shouldn't try to imitate his predecessor. She said Catholics understand the papacy is not a popularity contest.

"He seems to have a pastoral sense about him. From what he's said since his election, I feel that he understands the role of shepherd," she said.

Lombard stood in a sunny corner of St. Peter's Square, hoping the pope would ride by. A few minutes later, his open jeep pulled into view and passed a few feet away, prompting cheers, waves and camera flashes from the excited crowd.

Standing in the back seat, Pope Benedict smiled as if genuinely in awe of the outpouring of affection he has enjoyed since his election.

In his inaugural Mass, he didn't ask Catholics for their cheers, but for their prayers. He is getting both.

END


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