Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Biggest crisis of his papacy: "Is the pope a reactionary or a prophet?"

Pope Benedict XVI is shy, humble, a man of temperate habits with a love of cats and classical music. How does this square with his image as God's rottweiler? And why has he upset more people than any other pope?
Picture of John Hooper


Pope Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI is facing the biggest crisis of his reign as pope.

Photograph: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP

Under an all-but-full moon on the opening evening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, tens of thousands of Romans poured into St Peter's Square in a torchlight procession. Called to the window of his study by the multitude, John XXIII, the man Italians called "the good pope" (a term that speaks volumes about their view of the previous 260), delivered one of the great speeches of an eloquent decade. Its emotional high point came when he told the crowd: "Returning home, you'll find the children. Give your children a caress and say: 'This is the caress of the pope.'"

Forty-three years later, on the night Benedict XVI was elected, a text message hurtled between mobiles as the crowds dispersed from that same square. "Returning home, you'll find the children", it read. "Give them a belt round the ear and say: 'That's a belt round the ear from the pope.'"

In the five years since, it has become clear that the daunting reputation the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger brought into office as "God's rottweiler" was, in many respects, misleading. A man less likely to cuff a child would be hard to imagine – although, as the latest and biggest scandal to rock his papacy has revealed, his choirmaster brother was not above cuffing choristers.

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