What the Pope Accomplished

It was one of the few unscripted moments of the entire week. Following the final psalm reading at Saturday's papal mass inside New York's historic St. Patrick's Cathedral, Pope Benedict XVI held on to the microphone when an altar assistant, who had likely rehearsed this moment dozens of times, was about to take it away and move on with the service. "I will do all possible to be a real successor to Peter, who also was a man with all his faults and sins but who remains finally the rock for the church," the pontiff said in his thick German accent, speaking slowly and deliberately. The moment seemed to catch everyone off guard, including the row of journalists seated next to the altar. Impromptu moments like this don't come often from Benedict.

The words were an addendum to the pontiff's homily, in which for the fifth time during his five-day tour of America Benedict addressed the issue most prominent during his trip: the sexual abuse scandals that shook the American church six years ago and have cost it more than $2 billion in settlements, not to mention moral authority in the minds of many. But just a day before the end of his American tour, the pope's off-the-cuff moment conveyed authentic humility, acknowledging his inability to offer charisma comparable to his predecessor's. In fact, his lack of superficial attractiveness makes his five-day tour of Washington, D.C. and New York all the more impressive. With all his limitations, Benedict seems to have set into motion an awakening of Roman Catholic faith in the United States after a rocky decade marred by scandals and diluted faith.

From the day of his election three years ago, church watchers have labeled him a "transition pope," mostly because of his age (he was 78 when elected) but perhaps equally because Benedict didn't embody the qualities most members of the faithful thought their leader needed in order to continue what John Paul had begun as a redefined papacy, built on global connectedness and political involvement.

Benedict has indeed had rocky moments. Whether oblivious or deliberately provocative, in a 2006 speech he cited a quote from a 14th-century Christian emperor suggesting that the root of Islam was both "evil and inhumane." Then, in a trip to Turkey later that year, he sought to reach out to Muslims by praying facing toward Mecca, which alienated some Catholics who thought the move was showy and unnecessary.

But his U.S. tour seems to have successfully combined showmanship and quiet spirituality. Leading masses for more than 100,000 people and offering blessings to faithful crowds that lined street routes for a glimpse of the pontiff and his Popemobile clearly had an invigorating effect on both the man and the crowds. In some ways it didn't really matter which pope came to America. Just as touring the Capitol building can reinforce feelings of patriotism, a glimpse of the global Catholic leader, the successor to St. Peter, conjures a feeling of elation. Devout Catholics would have lined the streets for any pontiff, regardless of how long his papacy was expected to be, or whether he was considered a strict hardliner or a people's pope. But Benedict, a reclusive academic, brought a new perspective to members of the American church, many of whom probably don't remember any pontiff before the crowd-pleasing John Paul. So if this week was a test, Benedict distinguished himself. "The way he has addressed different issues, like the abuse crisis in America, show he's a very insightful person. I think he'll only gain popularity," says Father Bob Reycraft, a priest who had traveled to New York from Denver to see the pontiff drive by on a stretch of Fifth Avenue.

Last week was the first time Benedict introduced himself to Americans as pope, making strong, if not always distinguishable, efforts to speak English in addressing the American church's most problematic issues. His messages were cordial yet firm, and surprisingly direct, rather than metaphorical. "Things aren't exactly as they should be, and we need to do more," was the gist of what he told audiences, an even-handed approach rather than the critical lashing that some had expected. "He was fair," a member of the Vatican press corps told NEWSWEEK. "He usually is, even though most people think he won't be."

The only real way to gauge the effect of the pope's trip is the echo he leaves and the response that follows. The substantive parts of the trip were the talks, the prepared speeches that addressed the big issues, the questions on how the pontiff would take control of the part of his flock that had strayed from the church's social doctrine. But even if Benedict's messages were well received, the fruits of his work in America won't be seen overnight. (Victims of pedophile priests, in particular, are waiting to see if there are changes in church law that deal more harshly with abusive priests and the bishops who may have covered up for them.) "The trip was designed as a seed-planting mission," says Ray Arroyo, news director of global Catholic network EWTN. And with careful planning, he addressed all major constituencies. "Think about it," says Arroyo. "He spoke to international leaders, leaders of other religions, educators, priests, bishops, the infirm. There isn't a part of the culture he hasn't engaged."

Not to mention youth. At the event where Benedict invested most in the future of his church in America, 30,000 young people—almost 10 percent of them seminarians—met him at a youth rally at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. The event was designed more like a rock festival (minus the sex and drugs) than a sacred meeting with the Holy Father. Pop star Kelly Clarkson headlined the preshow, followed by chants of "Ben-e-detto" in traditional arena style from most people in the crowd, some of whom sported "I Love Benedict" shirts. In the wake of the abuse scandal, the burden of healing the church in the coming years lies largely with them, and many seemed pleased that Benedict had addressed the issue so forthrightly. "Young Catholics seek authenticity, and it's up to us to present that to them," said 29-year old Allan Wirfel, a Legionaries of Christ seminarian in Cheshire, Conn. "Having Pope Benedict here is the embodiment of that authenticity. The fact that he's an older man only reinforces the depth of his conviction." And assuming the pope's continued good health, another visit soon would probably be welcome too.