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KMIEC CALLS NEW POPE A 'VERY WARM PERSON'

Pope Benedict XVI may not be charismatic like his predecessor, John Paul II, but people will come to appreciate the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for other reasons, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec predicted Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters hours after papal white and gold bunting replaced black mourning drapes over the front door of the Catholic Center on Main Street, heralding the election of a self-described "simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord," Kmiec said the new pope should be taken at his word.

"He has been that way all along," observed Kmiec, who has met Ratzinger "on the streets of Rome" and during periodic meetings between Vatican leaders and bishops.

"I like his humility. He is not an imperial figure," said Kmiec, adding that the former German cardinal, commonly described as dour and doctrinaire, was nothing like that in person.

"He was very fraternal as he walked among the bishops. I found him to be a most genial and very warm person on that kind of level," said Kmiec, who was to celebrate the new papacy during a 12:05 p.m. Mass today in St. Joseph's Cathedral.

The new pope merely needs "the chance to be himself" in order to convey those qualities to the public, he added.

At the same time, Benedict XVI, who worked closely with John Paul II for many years, "will be very firm in upholding the truth of our faith," the bishop said. "His learning curve will not be a long one."

Kmiec is not the only area Catholic to have encountered the new pope. Joe Chernowski met Ratzinger when he went to Rome on spring break with a group from John Carroll University in 1999.

The 20 students were hoping for an audience with Pope John Paul II, but the pontiff was on retreat, so the Vatican arranged for the cardinal to show the group around.

"He was telling us about different areas of the Vatican, and showed us some rooms where they discussed theology," Chernowski said. "I remember our professor saying, 'There's a good chance that this guy is in line to be the next pope.' I guess he was right."

Chernowski, who is director of Teen Life at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church in Orchard Park, expects to see the new pope again in August when he attends the World Youth Day celebration in Germany.

Reflecting on the 1999 visit, he said, "I was just impressed that he bothered to take the time to meet with a bunch of 20-year-olds from John Carroll, that he saw that as important."

Reaction locally was varied.

"We're tickled," said George Miner, owner of the Rose Garden Restaurant in Lancaster, known for its German food and beers.

Christian G. Koelbl, the honorary German consul in Buffalo, also said the elevation will likely be a source of great pride in Germany. "I thought it would be difficult for a German to be elected pope, given the country's turbulent history and the speculation that they might look to the Third World," he said.

Rita McGoldrick was born in Germany and said she was surprised by the decision.

"He's not going to change anything, that's for sure. He's pretty traditional," she said. "I'm very old school Catholic, but I think it's time to change a little. It's gotten too traditional, too stodgy."

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com and jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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