Pope's subdued style lends lackluster finish to visit

Experts: After John Paul II, Benedict seems cold and distant.

pope 298.88 (photo credit: )
pope 298.88
(photo credit: )
As Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Israel draws to an end, experts cannot help but compare his subdued style to that of his predecessor, John Paul II, who was seen as a charismatic man of gestures. "It's like the difference between a Litvak and Galician Jew," Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council In Israel, said on Thursday. "Benedict XVI is ponderously philosophically and comes off as cold and distant, while John Paul II was warm and expressive and had the ability to convey feeling. I'd say that the difference between the two is less to do with substance and more to do with delivery. John Paul II was a man of gestures," said Kronish. The previous pope's visit in 2000 was widely regarded as a landmark event in relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people. But many feel Benedict leaves Israel with the impression that more could have been said and done to assuage suspicions regarding the conservative pope's German background, his position on the Holocaust and his view of the Jewish people. In an age of sound-bites, narrowing attention spans and fast-paced media coverage, the profound, abstract and deeply philosophical messages put forth by the pope, as well as his monotonous, ponderous style of address came across as cold, distant and lackluster to many Israelis. "John Paul was a papal pop star who knew how to make a presence on stage, while Benedict is subdued and consciously nuanced," said Kronish. Daniel Rossing, director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish Christian Relations, said the perceived differences between the two popes were in part due to the circumstances of their visits. "John Paul II came to Israel toward the end of a long, illustrious career, while Benedict XVI is still fairly new to the position," said Rossing. "Also, John Paul was a Pole whose childhood experiences included close ties with Jews. In contrast, the present pope grew up in Nazi Germany at a time when everyone, whether they identified or not, was enlisted in the war effort." Rossing also said that unlike John Paul, Benedict had to combat negative perceptions in the wake of several "misjudgements." He pointed to the pope's 2006 speech at Regensburg, Germany, which sparked a wave of criticism from Islamic leaders. In the speech the pope quoted a disparaging remark made about Islam. Rossing also pointed to recent papal decisions that hurt relations with Jews, such as the restoration of a Holocaust-denying bishop and the move to beatify Pope Pius XII, whom Jewish leaders say did not do enough to save Jews during the Holocaust. According to Rabbi David Rosen, the Jerusalem-based director of the American Jewish Committee's Department for Interreligious Affairs, Israelis' unfulfilled expectations have more to do with Benedict personality than with his messages. "The negative reaction to the pope's speech at Yad Vashem reflected the fact that the man is not an emotional personality," he said. "And what Israelis wanted was an emotional expression that could connect with Jews' pain. That criticism reflects an unrealistic expectation based on John Paul II's precedent. "Still, I am convinced that the present pope is very sincere and really wants closer relations with Jews. But his style is more that of a German professor who is more comfortable in the world of books and ideas than in the world of people and mass communications."