Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is the exception that makes the rule. Over the last two weeks, anyone who has been listening has heard the adage that he who goes into the conclave a pope comes out a cardinal. But Ratzinger, the early favorite to succeed Pope John Paul II, came out of the conclave Pope Benedict XVI.
And he did so in just over 24 hours.
The selection set the crowds cheering in St. Peter's Square. The bells rang there and throughout the world.
In the United States, conservative theologians and the faithful cheered the news as well. It was not good news for those who thought a new pope might be less conservative than John Paul, but it could not have been much of a surprise. All but three of the 115 cardinals who entered the Sistine Chapel to participate in the selection had been elevated by John Paul.
As a close adviser to John Paul, then Cardinal Ratzinger was regarded as a strict traditionalist on church stances against married or women priests, birth control and homosexuality.
Yet, it has been pointed out that popes of the Roman Catholic Church are much like justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. A lifetime appointment to a position of great power and influences has a liberating effect on persons of great intellect, and Pope Benedict XVI certainly qualifies.
Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl told the Associated Press that the new pope's choice of a name sends a message. "I think what he is saying to us somewhat subtly, or not so subtly, is that he does not see himself as in some way a reproduction of John Paul II's style," Wuerl said.
That, of course could mean a lot of things. Certainly at the age of 78, Pope Benedict could not be expected to be the globetrotting pope that John Paul was after taking office in 1978 at age 58. And obviously his reign will not approach that of John Paul, who served for more than 26 years.
The new pope's namesake, Benedict XV, succeeded Pius X in 1914. Pius X was a biblical fundamentalist who in 1910 required all clergy and professors to take a formal Oath Against Modernism.
Benedict XV, the pope during World War I, was a moderate, a scholar, a pacifist and an administrator with a keen eye for talent. He is credited with advancing the careers of two men who would become his successors, Pius XI and Pius XII.
Perhaps Benedict XVI sees himself as a similar bridge pope, or perhaps he has one of the 14 other Benedicts in mind. Under any circumstances, it is dangerous to characterize any pope's tenure as that of a caretaker.
Age factor doesn't count
As Youngstown Bishop Thomas Tobin notes, Pope John XXIII was the same age as Benedict XVI when he was elected and was viewed as a transitional figure. The man who was not expected to make many waves started the Second Vatican Council.
Pope Benedict is keenly aware of divisions that have the potential of damaging the catholic nature of the church he now heads. Religions -- not just Christianity and not just Catholicism -- are torn by the demands and expectations of their members and by the realities of a changing world. The extent to which church leaders can reconcile the tenets of their faith with the needs of their people, determines whether a sect grows, stagnates or shrinks.
When smoke began to pour from the chimney at the Vatican Tuesday, it was of an ambiguous shade. The crowd wasn't sure it was white until the bells began to peal.
Likewise, the world does not know today what role Pope Benedict will play in the future of the Roman Catholic Church. His past, like those puffs of smoke, offers a strong hint, but few certainties.