Habemus papem

Just before noon Tuesday, it was announced that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the influential 78-year-old cardinal from Germany, became Pope Benedict XVI — the Catholic Church's 265th pope.

As a cardinal, Ratzinger saw his power and influence increase as he was progressively appointed to positions of higher importance within the Catholic hierarchy. During his rise to become Pope John Paul II's right-hand man, Ratzinger solidified his reputation as a steadfast "watchdog" dedicated to a conservative view of Catholicism.

A standout among Ratzinger's credentials for the papacy was his longtime position as Pope John Paul II's powerful administrator, according to Michael Fleet, a political science professor and expert in the Catholic Church and politics. His many years of service to the Vatican familiarized him to the College of Cardinals, Fleet said, and recommended him for the job, as did his theological continuity with Pope John Paul II.

"He exudes administrative confidence," Fleet said. "He's very well known, and it's well known that he's theologically in spirit with his predecessor."

"I think the two of them are very much of the same mind," Ralph Del Colle, associate professor of theology, said of Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II. "I think this is a sign of continuity with Pope John Paul II."

The elevation of the snow-haired Cardinal came as a surprise to some, however.

"I did not think that they would have picked someone like him who, shall we say, brings some baggage to the office," said Steven Avella, associate professor of history and papal scholar. "He elicits some mixed reactions from people around the world. I thought the cardinals would have wanted a fresh face."

Ratzinger is known for ascribing to a "firmly-etched, sharply-identified" take on Catholicism that falls toward the conservative end of the spectrum, Avella said. He rankled some Catholics with his censorship of some more progressive theologians, such as Switzerland's Hans Kung and American Roger Haight. Some have seen an unwillingness to engage in dialogue in his actions — he tussled with other German bishops over marriage and divorce, Avella said, and is known for trying to leach power away from local dioceses — and spoke out against the Iraq war.

"Some people love him and think he has upheld the standard of truth," Avella said. Other, more progressive Catholics are likely being more cautious: "These folks aren't clinking their glasses around the world today."

Ratzinger is the first German pope in at least 500 years. While there was considerable speculation that the College of Cardinals might have chosen a Latin American or African cardinal for the next pope, Fleet said the pope's nationality is typically of little consequence.

Ratzinger had a relatively short reign as archbishop of Munich and Freising in the 1960s, Fleet said, and most of his religious contemporaries are now deceased, which makes for little homeland legacy.

Furthermore, most cardinals get "Romanized" when they effectively move to Rome to perform their duties.

"They don't ever go home, and they don't always bring a lot of pastoral experience," Fleet said. "He's not as well known (in Germany) — this is what happens to people when you go away to Rome."

There was also considerable speculation that Ratzinger, 78, was chosen as a "transitional" pope to bide the time between Pope John Paul II and another, perhaps more sensational pope. Ralph Del Colle, associate professor of theology, doesn't agree with this view.

"His papacy will not be a long one," he said. "Does that mean that this will be an uninspiring, unimportant pontificate? I don't think so."

Ratzinger was born in the town of Marktl am Inn in Germany, according to the Holy See press office. He was ordained a priest in 1951 and in 1962, when he as only 35 years old, he participated in Vatican II as an adviser to the archbishop of Cologne. In 1977, he was named the archbishop of Munich and Freising and was elevated to the College of Cardinals. Twenty-one years later, in 1998, he was elected vice dean of the college, and in 2002 he was elected dean of the college.

Also Tuesday, Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan presided over a hastily-called mass to honor the new pontiff.

"The last 18 days there has been an eerie feeling in the church. Something, someone vital to the Church has been gone. We miss our father," he said to a half-capacity crowd at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, 812 N. Jackson St. "Thank you, God, for the gift of our new Holy Father."

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on April 21 2005.