FROM: Times Online
Pope Benedict - No Dr Strangelove
His message of divine love is surprisingly eloquent and confounds the early stereotypes
Anybody who has ever had to stand at a podium after a gifted speaker knows how it might have been for Pope Benedict XVI this week as he has made the first papal visit to the United States since John Paul II.
His predecessor was the ultimate media-savvy leader. When he came to the ultimate media-fixated nation, it was a match made in Heaven. Millions of the faithful and the merely curious flocked to parks and stadiums. People at times had to be physically restrained from throwing themselves at him. Even on his last trip here in 1999, visibly deteriorating, his mere presence was enough to move the least sentimental of grizzled Midwesterners.
The man who became Benedict was never going to match that. It would be rather like asking an ageing professor of English to take over from Laurence Olivier as Hamlet. He knows all the lines but he’s not even going to try to pull off the delivery.
Of course, when he was elected three years ago, the new Pope’s personal history created its own, somewhat lowered set of expectations. His membership of the Hitler Youth (actually mandatory for all young Germans, but why spoil a good story?); his reputation as the fierce intendant of Catholic orthodoxy; the fact that he spoke English in a vaguely “Ve haf veys of making you pray!” kind of accent. It was all too delicious for the headline writers. He was instantly dubbed Panzer Cardinal and The Enforcer.
Before the incense had drifted away from his installation Mass, the world had determined that this 265th pontiff was a rather disappointing, even frightening, sort of substitute for the last one, a kind of cross between Torquemada and Dr Strangelove.
Three years have passed since the fuzzy grey smoke from the Sistine Chapel announced his elevation and it is clearer than ever on this, his most visible excursion into the limelight since then, that this is as far from the reality as it is possible to be.
The visuals of a papal trip are much the same. There are vast Masses in baseball stadiums, Popemobile-led motorcades along city streets. And though he may not be a natural, this Pope has a sure grasp of the power of the image. He speaks to the United Nations today. He extended Passover greetings to the Jewish people yesterday and met leaders of other religions. On Sunday, his last day in the US, he pays a symbolic visit to the sacred American territory of Ground Zero.
But what is most striking, as hundreds of thousands observe this Pope in person for the first time, is not the visual symbolism, the crowds or the made-for-TV events, but the imposing beauty and power of his words.
It’s already a cliché in Rome that the crowds came to see John Paul but they come to hear Benedict. Among those familiar with his career, his reputation was always that of a fierce intellectual — the theologian and author of dozens of dense tracts on Christianity. But what was missing was an understanding of Benedict’s remarkable capacity to use words to speak to the emotional part of the human brain.
Of course, the Pope will already have known that the US, unlike the Europe he hopes still to convert, is a religious place. True, as in Europe, there are a growing number of so-called cafeteria Christians, those who like to choose from a menu of moral and doctrinal options, who believe religion should be essentially a kind of divine validation of their own lifestyle rather than a call to sacrifice and commitment. But America is still fundamentally receptive to the religious principle, the idea of a single truth rather than a moral chaos of equally valid beliefs.
It would be a shame, however, if his words to Americans were not heard by people — Christians and non-Christians everywhere.
He has already startled many with the intensity of his denunciations of the actions of priests who sexually abused minors — the scandal that has turned many away from the Church in America and elsewhere — as well as those in the church hierarchy who enabled them. The Church has seemed reluctant in the past to make a complete penance for this sin but Benedict’s words this week will have done much to heal the wounds and restore trust.
Less newsworthy but perhaps more powerful for most listeners has been Benedict’s eloquence on the spiritual challenges of the modern world. At the White House, with President Bush at his side, he reminded Americans about the responsibilities as well as the great opportunities of political and economic freedom. “Freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good.”
But the Pope’s most compelling words are a constant reminder of how absurd his stereotype has been. He speaks repeatedly of the simple beauty of human love.
Shortly before he became Pope, Benedict told a congregation: “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story, an event.”
This idea of faith as a love story — God’s love for his people, and our love for Christ, the human face of God — is what Benedict seems to want us to understand as the defining theme of his papacy. His first encyclical was not on birth control or gay marriage, but on what many considered the somewhat surprising subject of the simple divinity of human love, including the sanctity of erotic love. This emphasis on the centrality of love to the human condition is so at odds with the caricature of the doctrinal vigilante, endlessly lecturing on the perils of sexual intemperance, that it requires us to think hard about the very nature of religion’s role in modern life. It is a useful counterweight to the popular secular view that religion is the root of all human discord.
Three years ago, as John Paul II was laid to rest under St Peter’s, his extraordinary and epoch-changing ministry at an end, a reporter turned to one of his colleagues and said, with evident feeling: “There goes one heck of a story.” But the story, as it happens, lives on, Benedict has opened a new chapter and if people would only listen they might find it has a surprising ending.