WASHINGTON (CNS) -- U.S. bishops across the country recalled warm personal encounters with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger following his April 19 election as Pope Benedict XVI.
But none was as close as that of Auxiliary Bishop Ignatius A. Catanello of Brooklyn, N.Y., who remembered literally banging into a "priest" in a black cassock while walking through the streets of Rome a few years ago with Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito of Palm Beach, Fla., then also a Brooklyn auxiliary bishop.
When Bishop Catanello saw the shock of white hair he realized he had run into the German cardinal who headed the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
"He couldn't have been nicer," Bishop Catanello said in an April 19 interview with The Tablet, Brooklyn diocesan newspaper. "He asked us where we were from. He was very humble, just like the man we saw on the Vatican balcony today -- a simple servant."
Most of the U.S. bishops met the future pope during their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican, which always included visits to many different congregations and councils.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta also went to the Vatican frequently over the past six years in his role as vice president and then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Every time I went to Rome, ... we had a meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger," he said in an interview with The Georgia Bulletin, Atlanta archdiocesan newspaper. "And it was always the easiest of the meetings that we had, insofar as he was always well-prepared."
The new pontiff is "very, very professional, very organized and very cordial -- a man you can talk to and raise the most sensitive issues with," he added. "He is very, very forthright and straightforward and well-informed and not threatened by questions."
"He's a great guy -- very gentle, bright and a true man of the Church," said San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop John C. Wester.
Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco, who has worked closely with the new pope in several posts since 1981, said: "I have come to know him as unfailingly gracious and fair by personal temperament as well as keenly interested and knowledgeable about pastoral concerns throughout the universal Church."
Auxiliary Bishop John R. Manz of Chicago, who first met the new pope about five years ago, said he "found him to be kind of a quiet, almost grandfatherly figure at the time." In contrast to his reputation as being a "hard-nosed German," Cardinal Ratzinger was soft-spoken and had a warm smile, the bishop said.
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago said he first came to know the new Pope Benedict through the "paper trail" of his theological work.
"He's one of the few popes who comes to us with a plethora of writings and literature," Bishop Perry said.
Auxiliary Bishop Francis J. Kane of Chicago recalled meeting Cardinal Ratzinger while attending "bishop school" -- a Vatican seminar for new bishops -- shortly after his episcopal ordination.
"I think he's considered rather rigid and conservative (but) I found him very willing to listen to us," he said. "I think he will be somebody who will listen to what people are saying. But he is also someone who is very clear in what he thinks and believes."
Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein of Indianapolis, who worked with the cardinal as head of the U.S. bishops' committee on the implementation of the catechism, agreed, saying that those who have criticized him as too harsh do not really know him.
"He's a humble man -- very gentle, very patient," he told The Associated Press. "He'll talk with anyone who stops him in the street."
Pope Benedict's former job as head of the doctrinal congregation put him in the role of chief defender of Catholic beliefs, Archbishop Buechlein said. "He did that with strength, but never with a mean spirit," he added.
Bishop Ronald W. Gainer of Lexington, Ky., said he met Cardinal Ratzinger while a student in Rome in the mid-1980s through a priest-friend who worked for the doctrinal congregation. He said two qualities impressed him about the cardinal: "He is a man of personal humility ... (and) a man of profound spiritual life."
When he returned to Rome last year for his "ad limina" visit, which heads of dioceses are required to make every five years, Bishop Gainer visited the offices of a number of Vatican congregations. At some, he said, there would be an ornate chair in the meeting room for the presiding cardinal-prefect. But in the meeting room for the doctrinal congregation, all the chairs were equal.
Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, Pa., said Pope Benedict XVI "is indeed a humble servant."
The bishop told of a time in May 1994 when he and Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore were visiting Cardinal Ratzinger in his Vatican office.
"My briefcase was filled with a lot of liturgical matters. My briefcase opened and the documents fell on the floor. He came from behind his desk and kneeled on the floor and helped me pick up the documents. This is a humble man. This is the sign of a great man," Bishop Trautman told Catholic News Service in an April 19 telephone interview.
Bishop David A. Zubik of Green Bay, Wis., arrived in Rome just hours before the papal election on a previously planned trip and was present in St. Peter's Square when the new pope was introduced.
The election "signals that the cardinals want to continue the strong, courageous, spiritual and pastoral leadership of Pope John Paul," the bishop said in a telephone interview with The Compass, Green Bay diocesan newspaper.
He said many of the seminarians with whom he was visiting at the North American College in Rome were "jubilant" at the selection because they had gotten to know the new pope when he ordained many of them to the diaconate.
Archbishop Gregory emphasized that the images presented by the media of Pope Benedict XVI or any public figure "are never the whole story."
He spoke about a close friend, Msgr. Thomas Herron of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, who died of pancreatic cancer last May. The two met in Rome in 1976, and Msgr. Herron later went on to work in the doctrinal congregation.
Last year when Archbishop Gregory visited the dying priest, Msgr. Herron shared with him a letter he had received from Cardinal Ratzinger.
"Cardinal Ratzinger wrote Tom a personal letter that was one of the warmest, most comforting letters that I've ever read," the archbishop said. "That's the kind of man that is now Benedict XVI."
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