September 17th, 2010
11:03 AM ET
CNN Senior Vatican Analyst John L. Allen Jr. filed this report from London.
When Benedict XVI was elected to the papacy in April 2005, I published a book that recounted the last days of Pope John Paul II, the inside story of the conclave that elected his successor, and predicted where the new pontificate would go. After it appeared I dutifully dropped off a copy for Benedict with an aide, though I had no expectation the pope would actually read it.
Imagine my surprise when a few weeks later the Vatican spokesperson, who was vacationing with Benedict in northern Italy, called me. He told me the pontiff had come down to breakfast that morning with my book in his hands, and he wished to relay a message.
“Please tell Herr Allen thank you for having written this book,” the spokesperson quoted him as saying, “especially the last part about the future of my papacy … because it has saved me the trouble of thinking about it for myself!”
That flash of papal humor illustrates what is perhaps the best-kept secret about Pope Benedict XVI, which is that whatever one might think of his views on gay marriage or his handling of the Catholic sexual abuse crisis, he is, at bottom, a nice guy.
If some of the frost awaiting Benedict XVI on his trip to the United Kingdom now seems to be melting, that’s a large part of the reason why.
Over the years, people who’ve had personal contact with Joseph Ratzinger, the man who is now Pope Benedict, have always been struck by the juxtaposition between his public profile and his private personality. In public, he often seems a polarizing and stern figure; in private, he’s gracious, humble, a great listener, and possessed of a great dry wit.
Typically, the only time most people get a glimpse of that personality is when the pope comes to their backyard on a foreign trip. What they usually see is a smiling, kindly man, not a fire-breathing cultural warrior.
In part, that’s a product of message. One hallmark of Benedict’s teaching is “Affirmative Orthodoxy,” meaning presenting traditional Catholic doctrine in the most positive fashion possible.
The upbeat tone has been in evidence in the U.K., as Benedict began his trip yesterday by telling the Queen how much he admired Britain’s Christian and humanitarian traditions, among other things applauding the Northern Ireland peace agreement. This German pope even thanked the U.K. for standing up to the Nazis.
In part, too, Benedict’s personality breaks through in gestures and images. In Scotland, for example, he blessed a nine-year-old boy who had written to ask for prayers as he faces cancer, and British papers today were full of pictures of the pope kissing a toddler named Maria Tyszczak, the daughter of Polish immigrants to Glasgow.
The UK is, of course, hardly the first place Benedict has faced a tough crowd.
He went to Turkey in 2006 shortly after igniting a storm of protest in the Muslim world with a speech that appeared to link Muhammad with violence. His trips to France in 2008 and the Czech Republic in 2009 took him into hostile secular territory, and when he traveled to the Israel and the Palestinian Territories last year, he was also walking a tightrope.
In every case, the trip exceeded expectations, in large part because personal contact with Benedict took the sting out of much of the criticism.
It remains to be seen how the rest of the trip will go, especially given the Vatican’s penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to public relations. It’s also an open question whether softening the pope’s image, by itself, is enough to call the trip a success, especially given the real challenges facing the Catholic Church, beginning with the sexual abuse crisis.
Nonetheless, given the skepticism and outright hostility that seemed poised to swamp the trip before it even began, if Brits at least come away seeing the pope as a nicer guy than they had been led to believe, the Vatican would probably take that and run.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.