It was during mass at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne that I heard Pope John Paul II had died. There was a large number of young people in the congregation and many were visibly upset. My initial response was also one of grief.
As with many who form part of the "JPII generation" - the considerable cohort of young Catholics who have known no other pope - I felt an astounding sense of loss at the death of our spiritual father. Few others have had as great an influence on my spiritual and intellectual development.
My initial grief was quickly followed by a sense of trepidation. The reality of a church without John Paul II was difficult to fathom. My unease was not aided by the newspaper debates on who would succeed him and whether his successor would be any good. As the church prepared for the conclave, however, trepidation gave way to hope and, with the announcement of a new pope, joy.
I met the new Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, in 2000 following an early morning mass at the Vatican.
Seeing me near a group of Germans with whom he was speaking, the cardinal came over to say hello. Unlike others in important positions, he was not aloof or gruff. Nor was he intimidating or imposing.
Rather, he was warm and gentle. His manner was inviting and his genuine interest in me was endearing. His English was excellent and, although he first assumed I was American, once I corrected him on this he showed himself to be surprisingly interested in and knowledgeable about Australia.
Others have had similar experiences. According to Bishop Kevin Manning, of the Parramatta diocese in NSW, Benedict XVI is charming but shy: "People who know him find him a man of compassion. I don't know anyone better equipped theologically or pastorally to undertake the role of pope."
There is little doubt that the new Pope is intellectually capable. Ordained in 1951, he is fluent in several languages and has a doctorate in theology from the University of Munich. He lectured at the University of Bonn before teaching at the universities of Tubingen and Regensburg. His lectures are said to have been very popular, often with standing room only.
Although so-called progressives such as Paul Collins and Hans Kung have expressed reservations about prejudging the new Pope in the hope that he may yet modify various church teachings, this is unlikely.
One of the great appeals of John Paul II was his integrity. He firmly believed in Christ and the salvific mission of the church. Understanding that the church has a role not only in tending to the corporal or physical needs of its flock but also in ensuring its spiritual welfare, he was unwilling to compromise on what the church considers to be certain unchanging moral truths.
Benedict XVI mirrors John Paul II in this way.
"We are dealing with a man for whom the truth is the focus of his life. Everything revolves around the defence of this truth," Manning says.
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