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With the word “Joseph” the applause erupted from the expectant crowd, which had overflowed St. Peter’s Square. They knew the rest of his name. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a confidant of Pope John Paul II, his loyal head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was now his successor. He will no longer be Joseph, but Benedict, Benedict XVI, the 265th successor of Peter, the humble fisherman, the rock upon whom Christ founded his Church.
There was initial confusion in the square at 6 P.M., Rome time, as the smoke curling out of the Sistine Chapel's chimney was first murky then white, murky, white. But finally the great bell high atop St. Peter slowly began to move. There was no doubt now. “Habemus papam,” as Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez announced from the famed balcony of St. Peter’s, “We have a pope.”
Cardinal Ratzinger had staked his candidacy on two crucial homilies over the past ten days, one of which was a glowing tribute to Pope John Paul II and his legacy at the pontiff’s funeral. The second was a bold statement of his traditionalist thinking at the Mass of the Holy Spirit that began the conclave on Monday. He condemned liberalism and relativism and firmly embraced, “fundamentalism” as the true path for Catholics.
That he was elected so quickly was testament to the collective will of the cardinals— virtually all appointed by John Paul II—that the deceased pope’s strict interpretation and enforcement of Catholic teaching be continued. While it may never be known exactly how the vote went within the conclave, since the cardinals are sworn to secrecy, both the speed and the outcome defied the predictions of most Vatican experts. Most expected the conclave to last until at least tomorrow, as the cardinals searched for a compromise candidate. Most also expressed skepticism that any of the obvious front-runners, Cardinal Ratzinger among them, would be chosen. But there obviously was no call for compromise if Ratzinger won so soundly in just the fourth round of voting.
The mood of the crowd in St. Peter’s was in keeping with the man chosen to be pope—happy the election was over, but restrained. The man who is now Pope Benedict XVI extended his arms to the crowd, clasped his hands together in a victory grasp, but seemed almost to force a smile from time to time. Those who have seen him outside of his official capacities say he is a good dinner companion, extremely intelligent, but a man careful with his words and emotions.
Chants of “Papa, Papa” rose up from the crowd, but died down after no more than a minute or so. It was not the emotional welcome that in 1958, for example, greeted Pope John XXIII, who was beloved by the Italian people and, with his pudgy face, immediately endeared himself to the rest of the world.
Benedict XVI’s more stern appearance was still greeted warmly, and people I talked to as the square emptied after the new pope’s somewhat short appearance and greeting, rendered only in Italian, were generally pleased with the choice. “Brilliant,” said John Goleska of Bristol, England. “ After all, the cardinals know best what we need.” Erich Eitel of Rostock in Ratzinger’s native Germany, who kept his hands reverently folded as the crowd waited for the announcement, struggled to put his thoughts into English. “Consistent” was the word he finally found that summarized his thinking. “Yes, in the line with John Paul II, a continuation.”
Two priests from England were beaming. “Liberal Catholics will just have to get used to it,” they said, their tone more suggestive of an attempt at unity than their actual words. An American seminarian said, following up, “It’ll be okay. It will be a short reign and Ratzinger isn’t all people say he is.”
The installation of Pope Benedict XVI will be held Sunday at St. Peter’s.
Paul Wilkes is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times magazine. He has authored 18 books on Catholicism, including the bestselling Excellent Catholic Parishes. He is the author of The Seven Secrets of Successful Catholics and the creator of New Beginnings, a parish revitalization program, which is distributed by St. Anthony Messenger Press.
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