Three years and a few days ago, I was standing in the middle of St. Peter's Square in Vatican City, eating a cone of hazelnut gelato when smoke began to appear from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel.
It was a little before 6 p.m., if memory serves, and more than an hour before we were expecting to see the last smoke signal of the day, telling the outside world how the cardinals, meeting in a secret conclave to choose a new pope, were progressing.
On that late Tuesday afternoon, the first puffs of smoke looked gray. A few minutes later, when a steady stream of decidedly white smoke appeared and then the campanone -- the enormous bell on the front of the basilica that is rung when a new pope has been chosen -- began to toll, total mayhem broke out in the square.
Habemus Papam! We have a pope!
Thousands of people ran toward the basilica, straining to see who would appear on the main balcony of St. Peter's. When a cardinal from Chile emerged to announce that we did, in fact, have a new pope, tension in the crowd made it feel as though it was holding its collective breath. And then, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger of Germany walked through the velvet curtains onto the balcony with a new name: Pope Benedict XVI.
I recall vividly the massive cheer from the crowd in the square, followed almost immediately by an audible groan.
"Papa Ratzi," I heard one of the seminarians standing near me say when he recognized the German cardinal. A few hours later, as the world began to learn more about Pope Benedict's personal history, some folks began to call him "Papa Nazi" because of his experiences in the Hitler Youth during World War II.
I don't believe the reason the crowd groaned when they realized Ratzinger had been elected to fill the throne of St. Peter was his personal history.
I think it was his personality, or, frankly, the perceived lack thereof.
During the reign of the beloved, highly personable and thoroughly Polish Pope John Paul II, Ratzinger had been the head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- the Vatican's doctrinal enforcer.
Many people were disappointed that the new pope was the man they knew as the austere, hyper-conservative cardinal nicknamed "God's Rottweiler."
In the three years since Pope Benedict assumed his role as shepherd of the world's more than 1 billion Roman Catholics, he has not ruled with the iron fist that some Catholics anticipated. But he hasn't entirely filled the shoes of Pope John Paul II -- an international superstar with the robust physique, artsy disposition and almost mischievous twinkle in his eye. (Although the fire-engine red loafers Benedict has taken to sporting are a step in the right direction.)
Benedict's first visit to the United States was his big chance to show the struggling church here who he really is, up close and personal. Last week, I said I hoped he would emphasize his love for his American believers still reeling from the clergy sex abuse scandal.
That is exactly what he did.
Benedict showed the warmth and kindness that people who have known him privately for years insist is very much central to who he is. Even before he landed on U.S. soil, the new pope addressed the sex-abuse travesty head on, calling it shameful and incomprehensible.
After he landed, the pope continued to talk about the scandal and met face-to-face with victims of clergy abuse, a Christ-like pastoral move that was felt well beyond the few souls he met with privately
On Sunday, before Benedict led more than 57,000 faithful in a mass at Yankee Stadium, he made a stop at Ground Zero to do something simple and powerful:
He lit a candle.
He held the hands of victims, their family and first responders to the 9/11 attacks.
While the pope prepared to preach in New York Sunday, I was at a church in Grand Rapids, Mich., where I heard a sermon that made me think of him.
The pastor spoke about St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians, where St. Paul talks about Jesus' tenderness and compassion and says we should treat each other likewise.
The Greek words St. Paul uses to describe the kind of encouragement and comfort Jesus offers paints an image, the Michigan paster said, of someone walking alongside of you, slipping an arm around your shoulders and whispering in your ear, "It's gonna be OK. . . . Keep walking."
As he walked among his American flock, that is precisely what Pope Benedict XVI, in his understated way, did. Much more like the German shepherd that he is than any sort of Rottweiler.
Well played, Your Holiness.
And please remember that your soft side is also your best.
Cathleen Falsani is the award-winning religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the critically acclaimed book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People. She is also author of the memoir Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, which will be released in August, and of the forthcoming The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, due in stores April 2009.