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Pope Benedict XVI has Western New York Catholics excited and wary, relieved and curious.

That's how Catholic leaders and teachers described the emotions of the broad spectrum of local Catholics wondering what's in store for the church under the new pope.

Those with strong ideological views, on one side or the other, probably have made up their minds about the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from recent reports they've heard and read about him as an orthodox hard-liner, said Msgr. Fred R. Voorhes, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Boston.

For some, that is a welcome continuity of the traditional teachings followed by his beloved predecessor Pope John Paul II.

But for others, hoping for a future with more liberal church policies and dialogue on doctrine, the selection was disappointing.

"He certainly wasn't the choice of Catholics who are on the more liberal side," said the Rev. Bernard Olszewski, vice president for academic affairs at Hilbert College.

But Voorhes believes a majority of Catholics are waiting to find out for themselves about the new pontiff.

"I think most Catholics want to give him a chance to speak, to teach, not judge him by any labels or stereotypes," Voorhes said. "They recognize the Holy Spirit was involved in the decision."

Still, some local Catholics were definitely taken by surprise by the choice of the 78-year-old who was dean of the College of Cardinals and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith under John Paul II.

"I think some were expecting someone different, maybe someone from another part of the world other than Europe," said the Rev. Benjamin Fiore, chairman of religious studies at Canisius College.

But his close ties to John Paul II and his strong presence following the pope's death clearly made Ratzinger the front-runner to be the 265th pontiff in church history, Olszewski said.

While there are a fair number of local Catholics interested in seeing a change in church policies -- such as married clergy, women priests and more permissive rules on contraception -- that progressive fervor doesn't seem as strong in Western New York as it is in some other American cities, Fiore said.

Western New Yorkers, in fact, would likely see little doctrinal change under Benedict XVI, anyway, Olszewski said.

"It will be the personality of the pope that will be very different," he said.

Pope John Paul II was a conservative, too, but his charisma drove his popularity to an almost cult-figure status, Olszewski said.

Voorhes served at the Vatican during the early 1980s and has met the former cardinal.

He said he was pleasant and polite, but introverted and a little shy.

"I think he's a very serious man," Voorhes said. "He always struck me as the professor who if he had some extra time would rather read or write."

Monsignor Robert E. Zapfel, pastor of St. Leo the Great Church in Amherst, also met Pope Benedict XVI while serving at the Vatican from the late 1990s until 2001.

"He's a very humble man, and I know it's been said over and over, but it's true," Zapfel said. "He's a gentle man who obviously knows his role, his place, his responsibilities. And at the same time, he never gave the impression he was anything more than a servant of the church."

Not only is Benedict XVI articulate and a brilliant theologian, he also is very affable with a subtle sense of humor -- not what some would expect when reading recent reports of him as an authoritarian, said the Rev. Secondo Casarotto, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua on Court Street, who is well-versed in papal history.

"There's clearly another side of him," said Sister Nora Gatto, executive director of missions and ministry at Niagara University. "I think Western New Yorkers will warm up to him very quickly and see he has a lot to offer at this point in time in the church."

"It's going to be a period of transition," Olszewski said. "People have seen Pope John Paul II for almost 27 years. We've become very used to him.


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