F. X. Rocca on JP2 in WSJ



Vatican City

When Pope Benedict XVI declares Pope “blessed” on May 1, bestowing on his predecessor the Catholic Church’s highest honor short of sainthood, millions will watch from St. Peter’s Square, on television and on the Internet. John Paul’s , which was officially announced last week, will be an occasion for recalling his eventful reign, and it will inevitably inspire comparisons with the man who now sits in his place. In many eyes, those comparisons will not prove favorable to Benedict.

The current pope is low-key, as Americans discovered during his 2008 visit. For all his charm, he lacks the gregariousness, physical presence and gift for the dramatic gesture with which the former actor John Paul could win over crowds.

Although a clearer and more accessible writer than John Paul, Benedict is far less at home in the age of electronic communications. His reign has been marked by a chain of public-relations disasters, most recently the widespread confusion over his remarks about the morality of condom use.

John Paul was also a much more commanding leader than his successor. It is impossible to imagine the late pope giving an interview of the kind that Benedict granted the German journalist Peter Seewald last year, in which he repeatedly admitted personal error and suggested that he is largely impotent to enforce many of his own policies within the church.

Nor has Benedict matched his predecessor’s popularity among non-Catholics. An enthusiastic participant in inter-religious dialogue of all kinds, John Paul appealed to Muslims and Jews with historic apologies for Christian anti-Semitism and the sins of Catholics during the Inquisition and the Crusades.

The current papacy has been marked by heightened tensions with Muslims and Jews. Benedict’s 2006 address in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a medieval description of the teachings of Islam’s prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman,” was followed by violent protests in several Muslim countries. Benedict has also irritated Jews by readmitting an ultra-traditionalist bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust denier, and by honoring Pope Pius XII, who critics say failed to do or say enough against the Nazi genocide.

In secular eyes, John Paul ranks as one of the principal heroes of the Cold War, identified with scenes of striking Polish workers and the fall of the Berlin Wall. By contrast, Benedict’s campaign to reverse the tide of secularism in Europe strikes most observers as quixotic. Of course, the fall of the Soviet Union hardly seemed a realistic goal when John Paul assumed the papal throne in 1978, and Benedict is one who thinks in centuries. But for the moment, in the crude terms of our politics and pop culture, John Paul comes off as much more of a “winner.”

There is one important area in which Benedict’s reputation stands to gain from comparison with his predecessor: his record on clergy sex abuse. It was Benedict, when still a cardinal, who took the initiative to launch the church’s first unified process for investigating and punishing pedophile priests. Facing strong resistance within the Vatican, he pursued the powerful Rev. Marcial Maciel, the late founder of the Legion of Christ, who abused numerous children over his career. He was disciplined only after Benedict was elected pope. Whereas John Paul never met with victims of clergy sex abuse, Benedict has done so five times and has offered repeated public apologies for the crimes they suffered.

Overall, Benedict has shown himself content to be overshadowed by John Paul. He has described himself as one of the “little popes,” a “simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord,” in contrast to his “great predecessor.”

Yet in his deference to John Paul one can see perhaps the most important difference between the two men. The celebrity aura that surrounds the modern papacy clearly makes Benedict uneasy. “Standing there as a glorious ruler is not part of being pope,” he told Mr. Seewald. “Is it really right for someone to present himself again and again to the crowd in that way and allow oneself to be regarded as a star?”

Of course, Benedict has never repudiated the spectacular pastoral approach of John Paul. But his more modest style turns attention away from himself and toward the essence, as he sees it, of his role as pontiff, as nothing more or less than “the representative of the Holy One.”

Mr. Rocca is the Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service.

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