Rome, Dec. 23 - On a recent morning, more than 15,000 pilgrims and tourists gathered in St. Peter's Square for Pope Benedict XVI's weekly audience.

Many admitted they came without much sense of the new pope and without a strong impression of his first eight months as pontiff.

"I couldn't tell you, to be honest," said Jim Campbell, 41, a Catholic who is a health and safety consultant from a suburb of Liverpool, England. "I'd like to see more of him on the TV in the UK, saying what he thinks about things and making a stand in areas. You don't really get to know what he wants. Pope John Paul told you what he wanted."

Karla McCarthy, 21, a student from Whittier, Calif., said, "I liked Pope John Paul better, but we'll see. I don't really know him that well."

Getting Catholics such as Campbell and McCarthy more involved in church life is one of Benedict's challenges.

It's one of the reasons he chose his papal name: St. Benedict, his namesake, established monasteries that served as evangelization and Christian education centers throughout Europe in the sixth and seventh centuries. Nevertheless, since Benedict was elected pope in April, he has taken few bold steps that would signal the path of his papacy.

John Paul II became pope at 58 and showed perseverance and strength in the face of frailty as he aged.

Benedict, a theologian who wrote eloquent homilies, was set to retire when he was elevated to lead the world's 1 billion Catholics. His slower pace may be partly because there's only so much the 78-year-old can do in a day.

It's also possible that Benedict, more accustomed to working behind the scenes on internal church mechanics and doctrine, has chosen to limit his public appearances and concentrate on what he knows best.

Despite this, the Catholic world looks to the new pope to re-energize and lead the church forward in the face of apathy in the West, a loss of confidence from sex abuse scandals and polarization within the faith, says the Rev. Keith Pecklers, a Jesuit and professor of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Among the expected moves Benedict has not yet made, says John Allen, who writes for The National Catholic Reporter:

*A shake-up of key Vatican personnel and departments, many of which overlap and are staffed by elderly cardinals.

*Appointment of bishops and archbishops, including seven in the USA.

*Outreach beyond Rome and the Vatican. Though Benedict has met with Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox Catholic and Protestant leaders, he has taken one foreign trip -- to World Youth Day in his home country, Germany -- and that had been planned under John Paul.

"Am I surprised by how slow he's moving? My basic answer is, yes," says Allen, author of The Rise of Benedict XVI: The Inside Story of How the Pope was Elected and Where He Will Take the Catholic Church. "I knew he was not going to turn the Earth on its head overnight. But given the vastness of his ambitions ... I would have expected in the first eight months he would be doing lots of things of consequence: more significant personnel moves, more significant documents, more serious public engagements, etc., etc."

In some ways, Benedict's papacy is a seamless transition from the 26-year tenure of John Paul. The two worked closely for more than two decades when Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department that safeguards Catholic doctrine on faith and morals.

Benedict is intent on following his predecessor's policies and dialogue with other religions. "My personal mission is not to issue many new documents," he said recently. Instead, he said he wants to ensure that many of John Paul's works "are assimilated, because they are a rich treasure."

His first major move -- a document released last month that defined when, if ever, gay men may train for the priesthood -- had been in the works since 1994.

Benedict's first encyclical -- a pastoral letter written by the pope to all clergy and church members -- is to be distributed soon.

"That will be a significant document, and it will probably indicate the direction of his pontificate," says Cardinal Avery Dulles, who teaches at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York.

Although Benedict's mission is on the same track as John Paul's, his papacy will differ dramatically from the stadium-filling performances of his predecessor. The new pope is older, more introverted and a stronger theologian than his predecessor was at the time of his elevation. Benedict appears to be proceeding at a pace that reflects his own limitations.

"Don't forget he's almost 79 years old," Allen says. "Part of his restricted schedule is not because he's doing feverish things behind closed doors. He's resting. There was speculation in 2002 and 2003 that his health wasn't very good. There is a basis for believing that there may be some fatigue and delicacy of constitution there."

Benedict has not yet made significant changes to the Vatican bureaucracy, the Roman curia. Many senior officials, including Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, are 75 or older. Bishops are required to submit their resignations at 75, although the pope decides whether to accept them.

"There's a certain sense in the Roman curia of waiting for the other shoe to drop," says the Rev. John Wauck, a professor at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce in Rome.

Benedict must confront other challenges facing the church. The number of Catholics who attend Mass in Europe has plummeted. Confidence in the clergy has been shaken by sex abuse scandals. And the church is more deeply polarized between liberal and conservative believers.

"The church is much more divided polemically and much more polarized than it was 26 years ago," Pecklers says. "I think the new pope is very much aware of that."

Within the Catholic Church, there are increasing divisions over the power Rome wields at the local archdiocese level.

"Are we first and foremost a Roman church, or are we local churches bound together by our unity as Catholics?" asks Matthew Bunson, author of We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI. "It's a question that's going to be answered over coming decades."

Benedict sees the challenges facing the church against a backdrop of centuries, Allen says.

"I remember having a conversation with (then-Cardinal Ratzinger). ... He said, 'Theologians are never happy with the answers we give in the here and now,'" Allen recalls. "I'm not sure how concerned he is with the question, 'What is church attendance this Sunday?' He is much more preoccupied with what the identity of the Catholic Church is going to be 200 to 300 years from now."

Benedict has spoken out about the need to stay true to the Bible's teachings to preserve the Catholic culture. Last week, he warned against the "consumerism" of Christmas. He encouraged Christians to put Nativity scenes in their homes as a reminder of what the holiday truly celebrates.

Sunday, during his first visit as pontiff to a parish here, he continued to preach a return to core values. He said the true Christmas gift is "joy, not expensive gifts that cost time and money."

"He talks of relativism ... the smorgasbord of beliefs he sees unfolding, and he is concerned the church will be assimilated if there is not an effort to resist it," Allen says. "That effort may not fill up churches right away, or win popularity contests. ... I don't know if it's right or wrong, but it's the framework he's operating under."

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