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Benedict's Challenge in Europe

By Jack Ewing Pope John Paul II was on his deathbed, yet in Siracusa's Piazza Duomo, Italian and foreign tourists seemed more intent on sightseeing than keeping vigil for the dying Pontiff. Indeed, mourners were greatly outnumbered in the city's famed cathedral, built on the fundament of an ancient Greek temple. Although in the cafés of Siracusa's old town Italian TV featured little but reports from crowded St. Peter's Square, where the distraught faithful wept and prayed, then another important announcement scrolled across the bottom of the screen: the winning lottery numbers.

While the Italian media's mix of the spiritual and the secular may have reflected a blasé attitude about the papal transition, the Vatican no doubt preferred such tepidness to the reaction of the British tabloids two weeks later. They greeted the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI with sarcastic headlines. "Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi," blared The Sun, referring to Ratzinger's brief, obligatory stint in the Nazi youth organization during World War II.

POPULARITY POLES. Perhaps such a reaction isn't all that surprising in predominantly Protestant England, but even in Ireland, a largely Catholic country, concerns were voiced about Benedict's reputation as a conservative. The Irish Times has run daily multipage spreads on the new pope that are positive in tone. But the paper also said in its opinion section: "By choosing a man who is despised by many within the church and viewed with a mixture of contempt and incredulity by those who are not Catholics the sheer contrariness of the decision is, in itself a call to arms."

Perhaps only Poland, birthplace of John Paul II, displayed unreserved enthusiasm about Benedict XVI. The new Pope was extremely close to his predecessor and was looked upon by John Paul II with great favor. Across Poland, churches filled and political leaders invited the new Pope to visit as soon as possible.

No question, Europe's feelings about the Catholic Church are mixed at best. That's true even in Germany, where people are proud that one of their own is Pope but are also concerned that the new Pontiff will prove too doctrinaire. "If he continues to advocate his conservative positions as he has done in the past, then I am very skeptical," says Ferdinand Schmitz, a 50-year-old engineer from the western city of Koblenz who had taken time out from a business trip to attend mass at the Berlin Cathedral in celebration of Cardinal Ratzinger's elevation. "I hope he will see things differently now that he is Pope."

EMPTY PEWS. On the cathedral's sun-drenched steps, Sarah Capriau, a 20-year-old Belgian student, also expressed uncertainty: "I'm a bit concerned about his views of the role of women in the church."

It's no secret that churches and cathedrals across Europe have seen declining attendance in the last decade, even in countries with large Catholic populations. While the Church's growth isn't expected to come from the Old World, the new Pontiff must nevertheless find a way to reconnect the institution to European daily life. But how?

Benedict clearly doesn't believe in bending Church doctrine and tradition to suit modern tastes or times. Instead, say commentators, he seems to believe that the Church's very strength lies in its traditions, its defense of absolute truths in an age of uncertainty. "He will seek to take the Church back to its roots," says Klaus Fitschen, professor of Church history at the University of Leipzig. "I would hope he will play an innovative role. But I can't see it."

CRYPTIC WORDS. It's not like the doctrinaire approach has no supporters among Catholics. "We need a Pope who is a father figure in these difficult times, a rock that counterbalances the relativism of modern society," says Maria Vittoria Brasca, a 26-year-old lawyer from Milan.

The rise of Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. shows a yearning for clear-cut religious principles. But no similar phenomenon has yet swept Europe in recent years. And even in the U.S., fundamentalism is largely a Protestant phenomenon, looked upon with apprehension or disapproval by many Catholics.

The election of Benedict XVI comes at a time when the Church must find a way to connect old truths to contemporary life. The Pontiff has hinted, somewhat mysteriously, that his reign may not be long. He must move quickly, then, if he hopes to once again fill Europe's cathedrals and churches. With William Boston in Berlin, Maureen Kline in Milan, and Gail Edmondson in Frankfurt

Ewing is BusinessWeek's bureau chief in Frankfurt

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