ROME — When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the Vatican’s stern watchdog on church doctrine, critics often described him as “God’s Rottweiler.”
But many say the German-born cleric now known as Pope Benedict XVI will pleasantly surprise Americans during his first visit to the United States as pope.
“The further you get away from Rome, the more people seem to rely on caricature,” said Sean-Patrick Lovett, head of English and Italian programming for Vatican Radio, who will travel with the pope. “People think of him as a rigid Vatican policeman who is obsessed with dogma. But he is the opposite of this.”
Vatican officials intend to use the pope’s U.S. trip beginning Tuesday as an opportunity to introduce him to American Catholics and non-Catholics who may not know much about the man.
It will be the first U.S. papal visit since 1999, when Pope John Paul II drew audiences befitting a rock star.
President Bush will greet Pope Benedict XVI when his plane lands Tuesday. The next day, on the pope’s 81st birthday, the two will meet at the White House.
Tens of thousands of Catholics from across the country will celebrate Mass at Nationals Stadium in Washington and Yankee Stadium in New York.
The pope also plans to pray at the ground zero site in New York, speak to the United Nations and meet with representatives from Catholic universities.
The pope, elected three years ago after the death of John Paul, is expected to offer a special message of hope to Roman Catholics in America, where churches have been roiled by financial woes and abuse scandals. Among the bright spots for U.S. Catholics are Hispanic immigrants, who are swelling ranks in parishes.
“I think Americans of all faiths – and no faith – will be similarly interested in what he has to say, especially since he has the gift of expressing profound thoughts in clear and accessible ways,” said Mary Ann Glendon, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.
Glendon said the pope and Bush seem to have developed a personal relationship built over several encounters, yet the pope has been highly critical of Bush administration policy.
On Palm Sunday last month, he denounced in his strongest language yet the Iraq war and the five years of suffering it has inflicted on Iraqi civilians.
“Enough with the slaughters. Enough with the violence. Enough with the hatred in Iraq!” he said.
The pope also arrives amid the presidential campaign to succeed Bush.
Although he is not expected to directly address U.S. politics, he likely will make his views known on issues consistent with Catholic doctrine. The pope has praised Americans who oppose gay marriage and abortion.
Lovett said the pope’s tendency to “go back to basics” will resonate with American conservatives.
He predicted that the trip’s theme – that God is hope – also will strike a chord with non-Catholics who are worried about global strife and jittery financial markets.
Glendon, a Harvard law professor, said Bush and the pope will discuss shared goals.
“These include advancing peace throughout the Middle East and other troubled regions,” she said.
As for his public persona, the pope is shy but much more forthright and accessible than he has been portrayed by the media, Lovett said.
Amanda Pawloski, a graduate student from Michigan studying philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, said Americans may be surprised to learn that the scholarly Pope Benedict XVI, a former professor, has strong popular appeal and that his Wednesday audiences are overflowing.
Tickets to upcoming papal events are long gone.
The Rev. Robert Gahl, a Catholic priest from Wisconsin who teaches theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, agreed that the pope has an understated charisma but said he also has an abundance of courage that has led him to tackle tough issues.
“I think he’s the foremost leader when it comes to bringing Muslims and Christians together,” he said. “He’s even bringing Muslims together since Muslims don’t have one governing body.”
The pope angered many Muslims in 2006 with a speech at Regensburg University in Germany that seemed to link Islam with violence.
Since then, however, he has convened a Catholic-Muslim forum that will hold its first summit at the Vatican in November.
Some Vatican watchers said the pope risked a renewed split with the Muslim world by baptizing a Muslim journalist on Easter. But others say the pope is not out to win a popularity contest.
“This is a pope who receives people you wouldn’t think he’d receive,” said Miriam Diez, who runs H2Onews, a Catholic news service in Rome.
“And this is a pope who doesn’t always do what a pope’s supposed to.”