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Posted April 23, 2005 at 4:12 p.m. CDT

Benedict addresses the media

By Stacy Meichtry

Media reports have called him ruthless. Cardinals have called him shy. Pope Benedict XVI went before an auditorium packed with reporters Saturday to speak for himself.

Benedict took the stage with his arms extended towards a warm applause and found his place on an oversized throne, letting the tips of his ruby red shoes peek out from beneath his white vestments.

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As artificial ceiling light bathed his small frame, Benedict made a multilingual address that shifted languages from paragraph to paragraph. He opened with thanks to his aides in Italian and expressed gratitude to the media in English. Switching to French, he pledged to keep open the channels of communication in the tradition of John Paul II, and in his native German he warned his audience against unethical coverage.

"The need for clear references to ethical responsibility cannot be stressed enough in that sector," Benedict explained to hundreds of non-German-speaking reporters.

The new pope is slowly chipping away at the abstractions that have shrouded his public image so far. In the days since his election, Benedict has been the focus of unflattering descriptions from the media, focused on his dogmatic past. But he has also been the subject of unquestionable praise from his cardinal electors, who tell of a gentle soul hidden beneath the doctrinal surface. The contrast has left observers scratching their heads.

"I can understand why the media is having difficulty. How can a man who was once a watchdog become a symbol of unity? It's like a doctrinal somersault," said Fr. Jacob Srampickal, a professor of social communications at the Gregorian Pontifical University.

Apart from Saturday's media address, Benedict has appeared in public twice, during separate visits to his former residence, just outside the Vatican City walls. Both visits drew intense crowds of onlookers and paparazzi to his doorstep, elbowing for unobstructed views of the pontiff. In both instances, the crowd would wait hours to watch Benedict come out, exchange momentary blessings with the throng and then disappear into a black Mercedes.

"He was very efficient," said Massimo Moranti, 38, who was present at the second visit.

On the eve of his Installation Mass -- an open-air ceremony that will be held in St. Peter's Square on Sunday before thousands -- the public has yet to form a clear impression of the soft-spoken German pontiff. The cardinals who praise him, on the other hand, had weeks to size up the former Cardinal Ratzinger during daily meetings that led up to the conclave.

"We could watch him work and listen and adapt to the discussions and questions that were raised," Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada told NCR. "You saw how masterful he was."

Ouellet was particularly praiseful of Benedict's performance at the Pro Eligendo Mass, during which the man who would be pope delivered a blunt homily that called on the church to defend itself against a "dictatorship of relativism."

That language has not reemerged since Benedict's election. An address to cardinals earlier in the week focused on improving ecumenical and inter-religious relations, a message that confounded a number of Benedict's detractors.

But many expect the pontiff to reassert himself in the coming days. Thursday the lower house of the Spanish parliament passed a bill that looks to legalize marriage between gay couples and allow them to adopt children -- an issue that the former Cardinal Ratzinger fiercely opposed.

"Spain is one of Europe's largest Catholic countries, so he's going to question that," Srampickal said, expressing confidence in Benedict's ability to handle morally complex issues. "But he has to be careful. People begin to lose faith, when they sense the church doesn't understand their struggles."

Stacy Meichtry is a freelance journalist based in Rome. He is reporting and writing for NCR during this period of papal transition.

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