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A blessed choice

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

VATICAN CITY -- With unusual speed and little surprise, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany became Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday, a 78-year-old transitional leader who promises to enforce strictly conservative policies for the world's Roman Catholics.

Appearing on St. Peter's Basilica balcony as dusk fell, a red cape over his new white robes, the white-haired Ratzinger called himself "a simple, humble worker."

The crowd responded to the 265th pope by waving flags and chanting "Benedict! Benedict!"

From Notre Dame in Paris to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, cathedral bells tolled and prayers were offered. Millions watched live television broadcasts of St. Peter's bells pealing at 6:04 p.m. and white smoke pouring from the Sistine Chapel's chimney -- signs a successor to John Paul II had been chosen.

Not everyone was happy, however. Jose Silvano, a 40-year-old travel agent from Brazil, called Ratzinger "the right pope for the cardinals, but not for the people. We were hoping for a South American, a Brazilian, a pope who would work for the neediest and the rights of women and children."

Niels Hendrich, 40, of Hamburg, Germany, jumped up and down at the prospect of a new pope -- but then gave only three halfhearted claps when he learned who it was.

"I am not happy about this at all," he said. "Ratzinger will put the brakes on all the progressive movements in the church that I support."

Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali, who worked for more than two decades in Vatican diplomacy, said the decision to choose Ratzinger was not made in the days leading up to the conclave or as a result of Ratzinger's moving homily at Pope John Paul II's funeral.

"Decisions like this are not made on how a person impresses you in the last five minutes, the last hours, the last days," he said, adding that the cardinals were looking for a pope who would carry forward the work of John Paul.

At the sound of the bells, nuns pulled up their long skirts and joined others jogging toward St. Peter's Square to watch the new pope emerge. Many were delighted when Chilean Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estivez stepped onto the balcony and announced Ratzinger's election.

"The cardinals elected a good and holy man who was close to Pope John Paul II," said Mark Wunsch, 27, a religious philosophy student from Denver. "He'll be a wonderful and good leader in preaching the truth and love."

As head of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger disciplined dissidents, backed John Paul in resisting reforms sought by liberals and urged caution in pursuing relations with other Christian denominations.

Coming from a continent where many churches are empty, he has pushed for Europe to rediscover its Christian roots while suggesting that Turkey's bid for membership in the European Union may be incompatible with European culture.

"Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me -- a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord," the new pope said in heavily accented Italian after being introduced.

"The fact that the Lord can work and act even with insufficient means consoles me, and above all I entrust myself to your prayers," he said.

Ratzinger went into the conclave a favorite. But the cardinals had appeared torn among choosing a short-term pope, returning the papacy to Italy after Polish-born John Paul's 26-year reign or electing a prelate from Latin America, home to nearly half the world's 1.1 billion Catholics.

His election in four ballots over two days -- the first of Tuesday's afternoon session -- was one of the shortest in 100 years.

Inside the Sistine Chapel, there was spontaneous applause as soon as cardinals realized Ratzinger had won, according to Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Germany.

"And I burst out crying," Meisner said.

Meisner gave a few clues about the new pope's emotional reaction on being named. He said Benedict XVI looked "a little forlorn" when he went to change into his papal vestments in the Room of Tears -- which earned its nickname because many new pontiffs get choked up there, realizing the enormity of their mission.

"I was worried, because when he came back dressed in his white vestments, I thought he had forgotten his skullcap," Meisner said. "But then I realized his hair is as white as his skullcap."

Meisner added: "By the time dinner came around, Ratzinger was looking much better and very much like the pope."

As dean of the College of Cardinals, Ratzinger had delivered a particularly sensitive homily at John Paul's funeral. He followed it up with a fiery speech to the cardinals before they entered their conclave Monday, warning about tendencies that he considered dangers to the faith: sects, ideologies like Marxism, liberalism, atheism, agnosticism and relativism -- the ideology that there are no absolute truths.

"Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church is often labeled today as a fundamentalism," he said. "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."

The contrast with the crowd-pleasing, world-traveling John Paul, elected at age 58, may be sharp, though the new pope, like his predecessor, is multilingual: He speaks German, Italian, French, Latin, Spanish and English, according to New York Cardinal Edward Egan.

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