Six Surprising Things About Benedict XVI, 'The Puzzling Pope'

David Gibson offers a handy guide for getting to know Pope Benedict XVI.

There are many paradoxes about Benedict XVI, but this may be the biggest: For a generation, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was one of the most prominent and controversial men in Roman Catholicism. And now he is the Supreme Pontiff, arguably the most visible and influential religious leader in the world. Yet on the eve of his first visit to the United States as pope, American Catholics—and everyone else—know little about him. In fact, Andrew Greeley’s review of my biography of Benedict, in Commonweal magazine, was titled, "The Puzzling Pope."

Given that context, and the curiosity that is growing as the April 15-20 visit to Washington and New York approaches, here are six keys to reading between the many lines that Benedict will deliver.

  1. "He’s not conservative—he’s old-fashioned!"
  2. He is a theologian
  3. He is not the "Panzerpapst"
  4. He is a European
  5. America is a foreign country
  6. Pontifex Minimus
ONE: "He’s not conservative—he’s old-fashioned!"


A Vatican aide to the pope delivered that protest to a friend of mine, and it strikes me as one of the best one-liners about Benedict. In reality, of course, Benedict is conservative, in the classic sense of the word—preserving tradition, preferring personal virtue over systemic change, doing more with less. And yes, Benedict will turn 81 on April 16, the day after he arrives. But his outlook is not about his age or philosophy. It’s his style. He loves the Fathers of the early church—St. Augustine is his hero—and he models his vestments on the Medicis of the Renaissance papacy. His Latin is better than his English—and his English ain't too bad—and he plays Mozart to relax. Benedict yearns for the good old days. That's his character, it's his destiny—and, for the foreseeable future, the church's destiny, too. On the other hand, for Catholics "on the ground" who are seeing a return to Latin in the Mass and maybe communion on the tongue (while kneeling at an altar rail, no less), calling Benedict "old-fashioned"

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