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STAYING ALONG THE SAME PATH

Attention now turns to the impact Benedict XVI will have on the Catholic Church. His greatest challenge will likely be walking in the footsteps of his friend, Pope John Paul II.

Of all the options before the cardinals, of all the hues and styles and ages and life stories that gathered in the Sistine Chapel, the man they turned to Tuesday to lead the Catholic Church was the one man they could not ignore: the man in the room with the closest ties to Pope John Paul II and the one who shepherded the cardinals through the days that followed the pontiff's death.

Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, was one of two cardinals in the room who voted for Pope John Paul II in 1978, and he had the late pope's confidence with the institutional church's most precious treasure, its core teachings and doctrine.

In that role, Ratzinger made enemies in the church. Many who hoped for a new openness in church governance or a new focus on different world issues feared a Ratzinger papacy.

Other insiders who feel that the church needed a strong hand at the wheel right now believed that Ratzinger, above all others, had the tools to manage the church and the strength of character to stand up to the forces of opposition and division.

But as he moves forward, Pope Benedict XVI's greatest challenge will not be managing the church or finding the right balance between issues facing the Third World and those facing industrialized countries. It will not even be facing off against what he termed a "dictatorship of relativism" Monday, in his last homily as cardinal, exhorting the cardinals to stand up for the absolute truths of the church.

Pope Benedict's greatest challenge will likely be walking in the footsteps of his friend, Pope John Paul II.

Benedict, a white-haired German with a pleasant smile, a man who turned 78 on Saturday, will not be able to escape the expectations that his predecessor created.

It will be assumed that he will not be content to stay at home in the Vatican but must travel the world to spread the Gospel.

It will be expected that Benedict will engage in the struggles of the secular world, standing up for peace between nations, for human rights among oppressed people, for the dignity and protection of prisoners, the elderly and the unborn.

It will be expected that somehow this bookish theologian will find a way to touch people as his predecessor did.

In that respect, the cardinals took a chance by picking Ratzinger. Had they opted for a pope from the Third World, one who brought a new life story and a new culture to the Chair of Peter, they might have blunted the comparisons. Had they found a man who was undeniably charismatic, they might have sent attention in a new direction.

At the same time, it is easy to understand their choice. In a church that felt bereft at the loss of John Paul II, it was Ratzinger who offered the most vivid and touching image at his funeral, telling the crowd that the late pontiff was standing at the window of God's house offering his blessing, as he had so often at the empty window above them.

Some analysts will undoubtedly see Ratzinger's election as an endorsement of a hard-line attack on one of the church's most vexing troubles: the ideological shift of Europe and North America away from their Christian foundations.

But many inside the church say that the rap against Ratzinger as a stern, unbending or old-fashioned churchman is not a good assessment of the man but a reflection of the job he held as president of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, one of the Vatican's top jobs and an automatic lightning rod for controversy.

Once Ratzinger is seen in a new role, they promise, another side of him will emerge, one that has charmed his colleagues.

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