By JOHN THAVIS, CNS | Published April 28, 2005
For more than 23 years, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s public image was that of a brilliant but strict guardian of Catholic orthodoxy, a man who did not hesitate to crack down on errant theologians or risk offending other religions if doctrinal clarity was at stake.
Until recently, most people in Rome discounted the idea that he could ever be elected pope. He was simply too controversial and might divide the church, according to the prevailing wisdom.
So when the 78-year-old German emerged from the conclave April 19 as Pope Benedict XVI—after just four ballots—it represented a turnaround of sorts.
From the comments of several cardinals afterward, it became clear that a significant change in perception had occurred among some of the voters, and that this helped propel Cardinal Ratzinger past the two-thirds majority needed for election.
The man known for years as a tough disciplinarian was almost uniformly described in post-conclave interviews as a mild, meek and caring person, someone open to ideas and suggestions.
“He’s a very loving, lovely person, very unassuming, and shortly you will see this,” Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York said after the election.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles cautioned people against judging the new pope on his reputation and said people “will have to get to know this man as we know him.”
What happened to soften Cardinal Ratzinger’s image and make him more appealing to the wide spectrum of cardinals from 52 countries?
Many pointed to the cardinal’s spiritual and organizational leadership during the interregnum as the key to his election. In particular, they were impressed by his sermon during Pope John Paul’s funeral—not just his words, but also his rapport with the huge crowd of mourners.
South African Cardinal Wilfrid F. Napier of Durban said while Cardinal Ratzinger may have built a reputation for severity as head of the doctrinal congregation “that is certainly not the Cardinal Ratzinger we’ve come to know in the last two weeks.”
“He was very caring, gentle, humble and approachable,” Cardinal Napier told Catholic News Service.
“You could see this in the way he interacted with the crowd at Pope John Paul’s funeral—for example, when he patiently allowed the crowd to keep chanting during the Mass instead of cutting it off. We could see that this was the kind of person who was able to read situations and respond to them,” Cardinal Napier said.
Several others, including Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa, cited the funeral sermon as a turning point.
“It was a historic moment, in which he was able to touch the sensitivity and the vision of the universal church,” Cardinal Bertone said.
Clearly, Cardinal Ratzinger’s position as dean of the College of Cardinals gave him wider recognition and more exposure, making him a point of reference for all the cardinals. He chaired the daily general congregations before the conclave and on several occasions was able to articulate his views on the challenges the church faces.
Soon after Pope John Paul died, Cardinal Ratzinger already had a core of firm supporters among curial cardinals and others. Despite a news blackout, the level of that support—some 40 electors—leaked out to Italian newspapers.
So did some revealing anecdotes, as when Italian Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, retired archbishop of Bologna and a backer of Cardinal Ratzinger, spoke to the assembled cardinals and ended his strong speech on the need to protect Christian identity with the words: “You already know who I’m voting for!”
The media focus on Cardinal Ratzinger during the pre-conclave period may have affected the cardinals’ perceptions.
Asked when the cardinals first sensed that Cardinal Ratzinger was the best candidate, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington said: “Well, when we read the newspapers. It was the newspapers that were telling us how Ratzinger was a favorite, so we knew … The Holy Spirit may even speak through newspapers.”
Another factor was continuity. In the wake of the global outpouring of respect and affection for Pope John Paul after his death, many cardinals seemed to be looking for someone of recognized stature to pick up the mantle of church leadership.
That may have made them less inclined to vote for some of the newer, less-known candidates.
Cardinal Ratzinger was seen as Pope John Paul’s right-hand man throughout most of his papacy. During the interregnum, the cardinal reinforced his prominence in sermons and talks and began looking more and more like the heir apparent.
“We all felt like he was a brother with superior qualities,” said Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, Austria.
To the outside world, Pope Benedict seemed to undergo somewhat of a transformation during the papal election. He went into the conclave sounding like an angry prophet and came out sounding like a humble shepherd.
A few weeks before the conclave, in exceptionally strong language, he denounced the “filth” inside the church.
At the conclave’s opening Mass, he warned of an ominous “dictatorship of relativism” in today’s world and compared the church to a small boat being tossed by the waves of ideologies, surrounded by human trickery and cunning.
When he emerged after the election, smiling shyly at a cheering crowd in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict described himself as “a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”
The next day, he told the cardinals who elected him that he wanted their prayers and their advice and pledged to lead the church along the path of dialogue and unity traced out by his predecessor.
His speech contained several passages that calmed those who feared a sharp departure from the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
It also contained a hallmark statement of the old Cardinal Ratzinger: that the church’s dialogue and its work in the world are framed by its most basic duty, announcing the Gospel of Christ to all people.