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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 April 2006, 05:07 GMT 06:07 UK
Quiet pope confounds expectations
By Peter Gould
BBC News

Few papal elections have been awaited with such anticipation as the conclave of 2005.

Pope Benedict XVI's election was met with jubilation in Rome

Around the world, a billion Catholics were anxious to know who would succeed John Paul II, and what it would mean for their Church.

One year on, they are still getting to know Pope Benedict XVI.

His style is certainly very different to his predecessor, and the first year of his papacy appears to have been a quiet one.

His election on 19 April last year was greeted by the ringing of the Vatican bells. Thousands of pilgrims cheered wildly.

'Darth Vader figure'

But others were dismayed; the reputation of the new pope went before him. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he had been the guardian of Church doctrine, a man accused of silencing dissent.

John Allen, Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, says the cardinal was seen as a Darth Vader figure.

"Many people expected that if Ratzinger were elected on a Tuesday, by Wednesday priests would be saying mass in Latin with their backs to the people, and one would hear a great flushing sound across the Catholic world as all the dissidents and liberals were washed out of the system."

The Pope in Santa hat
The Pope demonstrated his festive spirit to the December crowds

But as Allen points out, the most striking thing about Pope Benedict's first year is how little of this has come to pass.

"To be sure, there have been tough moments," he says.

"Yet on the whole, his first year has not produced the swift, hard-line action many expected. No theologian has been publicly censured, there have been no en masse firings of personnel, there is no discernible drift towards radically conservative figures and there has been no earthquake in either liturgy or doctrine."

The new pontiff has produced his first encyclical, about love and charity, and he has endorsed a ban on men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" becoming priests.

He has also created new cardinals and appointed bishops.

All in all, it has looked like a smooth transition.

He has gone against expectations
Father Thomas Reese
Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit scholar and an expert on the Vatican, says Pope Benedict has enjoyed a prolonged honeymoon period.

"He has gone against expectations," he says.

"Many people on the Right and the Left thought he would come on strong and go after dissidents, shaking his finger at everybody, like a cross between a grand inquisitor and an authoritarian schoolmaster.

Follower of fashion

"They expected him to do things fast, like a new prime minister or president, who spends their first 100 days getting new people in, setting their agenda, and showing how different they are from the man before.

"But popes don't do that. It took John Paul II seven years to replace all the top people at the Vatican."

I do not think he is a traveller, and that does have an impact on the Church
Dr Lavinia Byrne
So far, under Benedict XVI, there have been no great purges, and outwardly it looks like business as usual.

One of the biggest talking points has been the pope's penchant for Prada shoes and Gucci sunglasses.

It has left some Catholics wondering where this papacy is heading.

"In a way, he has been almost invisible," says Dr Lavinia Byrne, a former nun who is now a writer on Church issues.

"I am very disappointed, because I thought he would be more interesting and sparky. We know who his tailor is, and whose sunglasses he wears, but we do not know much about what he thinks.

Controversial move

"People say he enjoys being pope, and wearing the clothes, but he has said and done nothing, and delivered very little. One year on, it is still a case of watch this space."

One of the few changes made by the new pope has proved controversial.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, an expert on Islam and the Arab world, has lost his job as head of the department that promotes dialogue with other religions, and is now papal nuncio in Egypt.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald
Archbishop Fitzgerald's new role has prompted speculation

As a long-time Vatican observer, Father Thomas Reese is in no doubt the move was a demotion.

"The Pope's worst decision so far has been the exiling of Archbishop Fitzgerald," he says.

"He was the smartest guy in the Vatican on relations with Muslims. You don't exile someone like that, you listen to them.

"If the Vatican says something dumb about Muslims, people will die in parts of Africa and churches will be burned in Indonesia, let alone what happens in the Middle East.

"It would be better for Pope Benedict to have Fitzgerald close to him."

Another tricky area concerns the Vatican's relations with the Orthodox Church.

After the fall of communism, there was friction with the Russian church over claims that the Vatican was intent on "poaching souls".

The continuing tension meant John Paul II never achieved his ambition to visit Moscow. But Pope Benedict wants a better understanding with Orthodox Christians, and has dropped one of his official titles, Patriarch of the West.

It is being seen as a move towards reconciliation between the two churches, divided by the Great Schism of 1054.

Private Pope

For almost a quarter of a century, Cardinal Ratzinger worked behind the scenes at the Vatican. Now, as Pope Benedict, he is required to be the public face of the Church.

His predecessor, John Paul II, possessed the skills of the actor, and was always at ease on a stage in front of a big audience.

Benedict is more reserved; an intellectual who enjoys playing his piano. Now aged 79, he may be less inclined to undertake the gruelling overseas tours, and the huge open-air masses.

But if he spends more time at the Vatican, will media interest start to wane?

"I do not think he is a traveller, and that does have an impact on the Church," says Dr Lavinia Byrne.

"If the pope stays at home, you need to have state-of-the-art telecommunications, and you must have a really good website.

"The Vatican's website needs to carry daily updates, list contact details, and provide pictures of the people who run the departments - even their holiday snaps."

One year on, Pope Benedict remains something of an enigma to the faithful. Has the man once known as God's Rottweiler turned into a less threatening German shepherd?

"We are still waiting to find out who he is," says Lavinia Byrne.


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See Pope Benedict XVI when he went on his first trip abroad



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