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" rather than conservative may be a distinction without a difference.

TWO: He is a theologian
A popular quip (well, in certain circles) is that philosophy asks questions that cannot be answered, and theology gives answers that cannot be questioned. The gibe isn't really fair to theology—or philosophy, for that matter. But it does get at the heart of Benedict's approach to ministry. He has been immersed in theology all his life, and his entire priesthood was spent in academia or the Vatican bureaucracy. (His only parish work was a stressful year he spent at a parish after his 1951 ordination.) If the charismatic John Paul II spoke to the soul by touching the heart, the cerebral Benedict XVI goes to the soul through the head. His many books are his "friends," and his former spokesman, Joaquin Navarro Valls, described Benedict’s approach as the "pastoral care of the intelligence." He is the Catechist-in-Chief, a brilliant intellect who can distill decades worth of study into learned sermons delivered so eloquently you never even know when he’s speaking off-the-cuff.

THREE: He is not the "Panzerpapst"
Whatever Benedict's pastoral abilities, don't expect Cardinal Ratzinger to step off "Shepherd One" (the name of his chartered plane) on April 15. For most of John Paul's 26-year reign, Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—onetime home of the Roman (not Spanish) Inquisition, as we inevitably note—and the designated "bad cop" of Christendom. The head of the CDF has to draw lines, level punishments and basically talk tough, a role that Ratzinger seemed to relish, but one that won him epithets like God's Rottweiller and the old standby, the Panzerkardinal. But now that Cardinal Ratzinger is Pope Benedict, he knows better than anyone that he is also the chief pastor of the church. There can be no "Panzerpope." His job is to be the good cop, a symbol of unity who tries to encourage people to live their faith more deeply. As he told a dinner companion about his new role: "It was easy to know the doctrine. It’s much harder to help a billion people live it."