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The newly-elected Pope, Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, April 19, 2005. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)
Pope Benedict XVI – filling the shoes of the fisherman
CBC News Online | April 19, 2005

The election of German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope shouldn't come as a complete surprise. By some accounts, he had been the frontrunner to succeed John Paul II for months. Italian media said he entered the conclave with as many as 35 or even 50 cardinals prepared to lean his way.

Some surprise, however, arises from the fact that perceived frontrunners often fall by the wayside amid the secrecy of the process. Not this time.

In this photo from the L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, Pope Benedict XVI greets the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano)
His selection, on the surface, seems to represent a clear victory for the more conservative side of the church. As cardinal, Ratzinger attracted his share of criticism from the more liberal factions. He is not a man given to compromise on matters of church orthodoxy.

And he makes no apology for that. Just hours before the very conclave that elected him, he delivered a homily at the mass to warn the church (and the College of Cardinals) about the dangers of "radical individualism."

"Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labelled today as fundamentalism, whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, looks like the only attitude acceptable to today's standards," Ratzinger said during the homily.

That his remarks garnered an unusual round of applause from the 114 other cardinals in attendance underscored that his views carried much weight among the "Princes of the Church."

On the surface, the new Pope Benedict XVI seems likely to continue the kind of conservative orthodoxy that has marked his tenure as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. For the last 23 years, Ratzinger had been Pope John Paul's defender of the "clear faith."

But Ratzinger's discomfort with what he saw as a drift away from core Catholic beliefs was clear long before this conclave or even his elevation to the College of Cardinals. In the 1960s, at the Second Vatican Council, he noted that many church theologians were being buffeted by the "winds of doctrine."

"More and more there was the impression that nothing stood fast in the church, that everything was up for revision," he wrote.

Many observers caution that those who expect he will pattern himself after John Paul II may be in for a surprise or two, noting that he chose not to name himself after his predecessor, but after Benedict XV, whom Ratzinger called "a simple, humble worker" – a moderate whose social teachings and eight-year-long papacy were devoted to pursuing peace efforts throughout the First World War.

But those looking for a nod toward the pressures to "modernize" the church have not found much in Ratzinger's record to suggest that liberalization will be forthcoming.

It was Ratzinger's role to guard against any relaxation of the church's steadfast opposition to birth control. Those hoping for a greater role for women in the church may be disappointed.

Pope Benedict XVI waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)
That zeal in enforcing orthodoxy attracted quite a few labels over the years. Ratzinger has been called variously "The Hammer," "Cardinal No," even "God's Rottweiler."

Before the conclave, critics said he was too divisive, too polarizing. A recent poll in the German news weekly Der Spiegel even showed more Germans opposed Ratzinger's ordination as pope than supported it.

And yet he was elected on just the fourth ballot on the second day. Did the cardinals see something in this brilliant Bavarian theologian that allowed an early lead to quickly grow?

They also said that, at 78, he was too old. Some will no doubt consider Pope Benedict XVI to be a "transitional" pope – a code word for a reign that would be considerably shorter than John Paul II's 26 years. But "transitional" does not necessarily mean status quo.

Observers are wondering, too, if he will loosen the iron grip on the church's central authority that marked the John Paul papacy.

And will he be the same kind of traveller as John Paul, who embarked on more than 100 foreign pilgrimages? A trip to his native Germany for World Youth Day later this year may already be on his agenda.

The first German pope since the 11th century arrives with the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics wondering if the early assumptions will be the story of the new papacy, or if he can reach out to his doubters and bring them back into the fold.

Some observers are confident the old stereotypes will soon vanish.

"He is the most misunderstood person in Rome," Father Tom Rosica of Salt and Light Catholic TV told CBC News.

"He has a warm, kind, pastoral side," he said. "My only hope is that we give this man a chance and set aside all the names."

"I think we'll be surprised."

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