Pope Tweaks His Image on Six-Day Trip to U.S. Pope Benedict XVI ended his six-day trip to the United States with a Mass in New York. When the pope arrived last week, most American Catholics knew little about him. But the 81-year-old pontiff seems to have changed his image and America's vision of the Roman Catholic Church.
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Pope Tweaks His Image on Six-Day Trip to U.S.

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Pope Tweaks His Image on Six-Day Trip to U.S.

Pope Tweaks His Image on Six-Day Trip to U.S.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

In just six short days Pope Benedict may have remade his image. The pontiff is back in Rome after his first visit to the United States as pope. At the age of 81 he kept a breakneck schedule with 11 major events and speeches and one private meeting that astonished the country. And this may have led to some changes, as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Gone was God's Rottweiler, the policeman of orthodoxy who might wag his finger at the independent Americans. In his place appeared a white-haired smiling grandfather who is trying to draw people back to the faith, and it seemed to be working. Listen to what people were saying just before Pope Benedict's mass at Yankee Stadium in New York. Gloria Seward is from Binghamton, New York.

Ms. GLORIA SEWARD (Binghamton Resident): You know, it doesn't matter if you haven't been to church in 20 years. Come on back. (Unintelligible) fire and brimstone. It's like I'm your father; I'm calling you home.

HAGERTY: And here's Dan Quinn from Philadelphia.

Mr. DAN QUINN (Philadelphia Resident): It's a proud moment for us, I think. So, it's just great to be Catholic.

HAGERTY: A remarkable statement about a church that has been in crisis over the clergy sex abuse scandal for the past six years. So, how did Benedict change his image and perhaps that of the church?

David Gibson, author of a biography of Pope Benedict, says the turnaround occurred because Benedict rejected the Vatican's reflexive caution. At first, he says, the Vatican wanted to play down the scandal to keep it from becoming the centerpiece of the Pope's visit. But Benedict did the opposite.

Mr. DAVID GIBSON (Author): The irony is that by focusing on the sexual abuse scandal the visit showed Benedict to be the kind of pastor that the Vatican was hoping people would see. It helped humanize the Pope more than anything else could have done.

HAGERTY: Even before landing on U.S. soil, the Pope confessed that he was deeply ashamed of the sex abuse scandal. He repeated that confession again and again. And then this man who is known more for blunt academic argument than symbolism made the grandest of gestures by praying with abused victims.

(Soundbite of music)

HAGERTY: By yesterday afternoon many American Catholics had been persuaded of the Pope's sincerity. You could feel the warmth toward her at Yankee Stadium where he celebrated mass with 57,000 people. Benedict revisited the scandal briefly in his homily and raised other themes woven through his entire week, believing in an unchanging truth and challenging Catholics to live a rigorous faith.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: It means not losing heart in the face of resistance, adversity and scandal. It means overcoming (unintelligible) between faith and life and countering false (unintelligible) of freedom and happiness.

HAGERTY: But what drew the most attention was his reference to a political issue when he said that the rights of all people must be protected.

Pope BENEDICT: Including the most defenseless of all human beings, the unborn child in the mother's womb.

HAGERTY: This line was conspicuous for its rarity. David Gibson says that, during his visit, Benedict did not forcefully press any of the hot-button Catholic issues.

Mr. GIBSON: This could be seen as in something of the dismaying to both right and left. You know, he was much more mild-mannered and one wonders if he might have been even a bit too much of a soft-liner.

HAGERTY: The Pope did not condemn the war in Iraq, he did not call on wealthy nations to forgive debt or for a reduction in greenhouse gases. And he did little to engage Muslims, whom he's offended the past.

But those may be left for another trip. After the Pope left Yankee Stadium and headed for the airport, Brother Innocent Montgomery, a Franciscan friar from the Bronx, said he was sorry to see Benedict go.

Mr. INNOCENT MONTGOMERY (Franciscan Friar): I think the Holy Father comes to bring a spark and now it's what we do with it. If we really truly believe the Church is alive, now we have to live that everyday.

HAGERTY: And 15-year-old Megan Kiernan from Bayonne, New Jersey had these parting words for the Pope.

Ms. MEGAN KIERNAN (Bayonne, New Jersey Resident): Have a safe journey and come back soon.

HAGERTY: When he does, he will come with a new and improved image.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News, New York.

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