Who Is Benedict XVI?

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he is driven through the crowd during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 9, 2008. The pontiff is scheduled to visit Washington D.C. and New York in his upcoming April 15-20 US trip.
AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito
Pope Benedict visits the United States this week. But unlike his predecessor John Paul II, the current pope is an unknown quantity to many Americans. Just how unknown is what Martha Teichner will show us in this Sunday Journal:

Benedict the XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected pope three years ago, but he'll arrive in Washington Tuesday, for his first official visit to the U.S., as the pope Americans know practically nothing about. He is most notable for not being John Paul II.

"I think from the very beginning it was seen that he wasn't as big a media draw as John Paul had been, said. CBS News Vatican consultant Father Thomas Williams.

"Pope John Paul II was a born actor, he was a great communicator, and not only by his humor, but by a lot of symbols, by gestures, by grand gestures," Father Williams said. "And Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, is not that sort of man. He is much more a teacher, more professorial, but he's not as good at the grand gestures. He's not as charismatic as Pope John Paul II was."

More than half-million people spilled out of St. Peters Square on the day of John Paul's funeral. One of Benedict's first acts as Pope was to fast-track his predecessor for sainthood.

Benedict was a reluctant pope. He has said he prayed not to be selected, but on April 19, 2005, the white smoke appeared and Joseph Ratzinger emerged. The choice was a shock, even for longtime Vatican watchers like David Gibson.

"I'm supposed to be one of those people who know how to pick, who's gonna come out on that balcony in St. Peter's Basilica dressed in the white cassock, and I didn't expect it to be Joseph Ratzinger," he said.

Gibson has written a biography of Benedict, "The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World" (HarperOne). In matters of doctrine, he says for more than two decades Cardinal Ratzinger was Pope John Paul's enforcer.

"It was a great, dynamic duo: John Paul II, the globetrotting pastor with a smile and the charisma, was the good cop of Christendom. Meanwhile, back in Rome, Joseph Ratzinger, the German theologian, was something of the bad cop," Gibson said.

Conservative Catholics were ecstatic that the man known as God's Rottweiller was now in charge. Reform-minded Catholics were distraught … but he's surprised everybody.

"He's moving the center of gravity of the Catholic Church to the right, to a more traditional view, no doubt about it, but he's doing it in a much more deliberate and quieter way than a lot of people on, let's say, his right flank would've wanted or hoped," Gibson said.

"People will often say, oh, well now, as pope he's so much more soft and fuzzy, and likeable," said Father Richard Neuhaus, who has known the pope for many years. "He was always - not soft and fuzzy, by any means, but he was always likeable, always gentle, a great listener."

Father Neuhaus describes him as very private, but ready to joke about his very German discipline.

"He started describing his day and what he does and meetings, boom-boom-boom-boom, and then he says, 'I go play the piano for 30 minutes.' Exactly? 'Oh no,' he pauses and he says, 'Sometimes 37.'"

Joseph Ratzinger was born April 16, 1927 (he will turn 81 this week), and grew up in Bavaria. Although his father was vocally anti-Nazi, he was forced to join the Hitler Youth, and then at the age of 17 was drafted into the German Army. The pope's past proved moderately controversial, more so the speech he gave in September 2006, at Regensberg, the German university where he once taught.

Whether he was naive or trying to be provocative, when he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who claimed that Islam was inherently violent, millions of Muslims were outraged. There were riots; people were killed. Pope Benedict has been working to repair the damage ever since; his trip to Muslim Turkey helped.

In fact, he comes to the United States with a high approval rating. Of the people who know who he is, more than half like him; among Catholics, nearly three-quarters (although Pope John Paul II's numbers were higher, at 76% of Americans).

In Kaitlin Karcher's religion class at Our Lady of Grace School in the New York City borough of Queens, they're praying for the pope.

At Divine Mercy Academy, Christopher Jordan's school not far away, they're studying what a pope does.

Ten-year-old Christopher and 13-year-old Kaitlin were stunned to learn they'd been chosen to present flowers to Pope Benedict when his plane, the Shepherd One, arrives in New York on Friday morning.

"My jaw just fell, and I said, 'Wow,'" said Christopher.

"It's something that will be with me for the rest of my life," said Kaitlin, who admitted it was a little scary.

The band from Xaverian High School in Brooklyn will be on hand for his arrival, too. Wondering about protocol, their band leader asked if they would be expected to kiss the pope's ring, and was told no. "He's not that kind of pope."

So what kind of pope is he?

For 67 million American Catholics, that's a complicated question. Nearly 1 out of 3 Americans raised Catholic has left the church. Masking those defections is the fact that immigrants, overwhelmingly Hispanic, have taken their places.

Troubled by the priest sex scandal, the shortage of priests, the role of women, birth control and abortion, American Catholics will be looking for common ground with a pope who believes the creeping secularism, the so-called "Cafeteria Catholicism" they've been accused of, is unacceptable.

"He's got to address some of these problems," David Gibson said, "and if he doesn't, there's going to be a certain degree of disillusionment, there's going to be a certain degree of erosion."

American Catholics will be parsing Benedict's words, seeking in his itinerary something so they can connect personally with him the way they did with Pope John Paul II.

For Kaitlin Karcher's father, Robert, a disabled fireman, it's the scheduled papal visit to Ground Zero.

"It means a lot to me that he's going," Karcher said. "I feel that's hallowed ground, it really is. I lost six members of my company there, and they're still there"

Last year Christopher Jordan served as an altar boy at the Vatican alongside Pope Benedict. For Phyllis Jordan, having her son chosen to present him with flowers is beyond a connection.

"This is the greatest honor that anyone could have," she said, tearfully. Because? "Because of our Catholic faith."

At the Vatican, Augustinian monks who serve as papal valets wait for orders about what to pack for Pope Benedict's trip. Which of the world's most extraordinary hand-me-downs will cloak him in their history and their symbolism? One made for Pope John Paul II (Benedict wore it for the first month of his papacy). A take-apart travel staff given to Pope Pius IX in 1877. And the papal crest … his calling card … as he sets out to discover America.