VATICAN CITY - Today's inaugural Mass for Pope Benedict XVI will be his first great opportunity to present himself to a world that loved his predecessor but is divided over whether the man once known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger can earn that same love.
"John Paul II was an unknown quantity when he became pope, and his early papacy was buoyed up by the novelty of his election as the first non-Italian pope in centuries," said David Gibson, author of The Coming Catholic Church who now is working on a book about the new Pope.
"Benedict comes with a very long track record of controversy, amid great ambivalence about who he will be. He has to redefine himself. The inaugural message will be his first best chance to do so."
As cardinal, Pope Benedict had infuriated liberal Catholics for his censure of those he believed treated Christianity as just one path to salvation among many, or who he believed reduced the faith to social action or viewed Jesus as less than the divine son of God. But for those same reasons, conservative Catholics, especially those too young to recall the bitter struggles between Catholic traditionalists and modernists 50 years ago, believe he has courageously defended the soul of the church.
A recent Gallup-CNN poll indicated that 31 percent of U.S. Catholics had a positive view of him, 9 percent reacted negatively, and 59 percent said they didn't know enough about him to form an opinion.
"This says that the baggage he brings to the job may be less of a problem than what those of us who follow the church very closely may think, " said John Allen, Vatican analyst for the liberal independent National Catholic Reporter and author of a Cardinal Ratzinger biography.
"There is an overwhelming Catholic instinct to want to like and admire the Pope. There is a great reservoir of good will, and it would take very little for him right now to dip into that."
The neighborhood around the Vatican, which had become quiet after the great outpouring of love for John Paul and the excitement of the papal election, sprang to life again late last week. The initial sign was a long cordon of bright yellow police tape along the route that dignitaries will follow to today's Mass.
President Bush named his brother Jeb, governor of Florida and a Catholicism convert, to lead the U.S. delegation. Benedict's native Germany is sending its top tier, including President Horst Koehler and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
This is the first papal inauguration that an Archbishop of Canterbury will attend since the Church of England split from the Catholic Church in the 16th century. Archbishop Rowan Williams will wear a pectoral cross that John Paul gave him and a ring that Pope Paul VI gave to his predecessor Michael Ramsey.
One of Benedict's first messages was to Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni of Rome. "I trust in the help of the Almighty to continue with the dialogue and to reinforce collaboration with the sons and daughters of the Jewish people," Benedict said.
And one of the groups most enthusiastic about his election was People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which praised his past condemnation of commercial poultry practices and his declaration that animals are "our companions in creation." Benedict is reputed to be especially fond of cats.
By yesterday, St. Peter's Square was filled, primarily with Italians taking advantage of a three-day weekend because of a national holiday. About 100,000 Germans were said to be en route, and a total of 500,000 were expected for the Mass.
Photographs of Benedict slowly found their way into souvenir shop windows, becoming as prominent as those of John Paul II as the Mass drew nearer. Perhaps the first visible outpouring of affection for Benedict came from children in a nearby school, who painted three huge banners decorated with red hearts. They hung from upstairs windows along the main avenue leading to St. Peter's Basilica.
"Dear papa [pope] our little hearts love you," one banner said in Italian. "Benedict XVI, bless all of us. "
Benedict has made two visits to his former apartment, from which he used to walk to his Vatican office. Crowds of paparazzi jostled for photos, while young tourists lofted their camera phones. Benedict, who was always considered shy, seemed to rise to his public role, kissing children, smiling broadly, and raising his hands in a gesture of greeting and blessing.
He has officially unsealed the papal apartments and was filmed there practicing his new signature. But he is still living in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a Vatican guest house where the cardinals slept during the conclave. The papal apartments are being renovated, apparently to accommodate his personal library.
As if by magic, thousands of plastic chairs appeared neatly laid out in St. Peter's Square for ticketed guests. At midnight Thursday, workers tested a sound system using operatic selections. During the Jubilee Year of 2000, when John Paul held huge festivals in honor of Jesus' 2000th birthday, the Vatican staff became accomplished at organizing immense outdoor events. They set up and take down equipment with lightning speed.
Il Cammino, a floral company from San Remo, on the Mediterranean coast five hours north of Rome, was arranging a vast carpet of flowers on the sloping, terraced steps leading to St. Peter's Basilica. It uses 7,000 roses, 2,000 carnations, 1,000 lilies, 1,000 gladioli, 1,000 philodendrons, and a host of other flowers.
Today, people will be looking for a catch-phrase from Benedict's homily to signal the theme of his papacy. John Paul, who was soon to stare down the Soviet Empire, proclaimed "Be not afraid!" Italians recall Blessed John XXIII telling them when Vatican II opened, "Now go back home and give your little children a kiss, tell them it is from Pope John."
If ever a man was equipped to set the tone of his papacy with words, it is Benedict. John Paul, who studied acting before seminary, had tremendous dramatic presence, but was rarely quotable. Employees of Vatican Radio searched his convoluted dissertations in vain for sound bites.
Cardinal Ratzinger, on the other hand, is a lucid, succinct writer.
"He is a man who goes to the heart through the head," Mr. Gibson said. "John Paul was a master of the great dramatic gesture. Benedict's homily .● .● . will be very important because Ratzinger is a man of words. He is a very clear writer on very dense topics. He will speak more clearly than John Paul II."
The inaugural Mass will be more Mass than inauguration. Benedict received the full authority of his office on Tuesday, when he accepted his election. There is no swearing in.
"This is fundamentally the Sunday Mass for the fifth Sunday of Easter. So the Holy Father Pope Benedict will be celebrating the same Catholic Mass that will be celebrated this Sunday throughout the world, " said the Rev. Dennis Gill, a Philadelphia priest who is director of liturgy at the North American College in Rome.
"The celebration this Sunday is an external manifestation of what actually took place in the conclave when he accepted his election."
Two rituals will set it apart. Benedict will receive the pallium, a woolen stole worn by all archbishops, by him as the bishop of Rome. It symbolizes a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders. And he will receive a newly minted ring with the seal of the fisherman because he is the successor of the Apostle Peter, who was a fisherman and was called to catch souls.
"It is the ring he will wear throughout his papacy, and that ring will be destroyed when he dies," Father Gill said.
The Mass will be said on the steps of St. Peter's because the crowd will be far too large to jam into the basilica. Both John Pauls celebrated their inaugural Mass outside also. Cardinal Ratzinger is viewed as more of a liturgical traditionalist, yet he did not move it back inside to the papal altar that lies directly above Peter's grave.
"Especially for a guy who has a reputation for being somewhat closed, it would be bad symbolism for him to go inside," Mr. Allen said.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ann Rodgers is a religion writer for the Post-Gazette.41.90385 12.45249