VATICAN CITY (AP) – With unusual speed and little surprise, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany became Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday, a 78-year-old transitional leader who promises to enforce strictly conservative policies for the world’s Roman Catholics.
Appearing on St. Peter’s Basilica balcony as dusk fell, a red cape over his new white robes, the white-haired Ratzinger called himself “a simple, humble worker.”
From Notre Dame in Paris to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, cathedral bells tolled and prayers were offered. Millions watched live television broadcasts of St. Peter’s bells pealing at 6:04 p.m. and white smoke pouring from the Sistine Chapel’s chimney – signs a successor to John Paul II had been chosen.
As head of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger disciplined dissidents, backed John Paul in resisting reforms sought by liberals and urged caution in pursuing relations with other Christian denominations.
Coming from a continent where many churches are empty, he has pushed for Europe to rediscover its Christian roots while suggesting that Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union may be incompatible with European culture.
“Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me – a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord,” the new pope said in heavily accented Italian after being introduced.
Ratzinger went into the conclave a favorite. But the cardinals had appeared torn among choosing a short-term pope, returning the papacy to Italy after Polish-born John Paul’s 26-year reign or electing a prelate from Latin America, home to nearly half the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.
His election in four ballots over two days – the first of Tuesday’s afternoon session – was one of the shortest in 100 years.
The contrast with the crowd-pleasing, world-traveling John Paul, elected at age 58, may be sharp, though the new pope, like his predecessor, is multilingual: He speaks German, Italian, French, Latin, Spanish and English, according to New York Cardinal Edward Egan.
Ratzinger, the oldest pope elected since Clement XII in 1730, has no apparent history of chronic health problems but has been hospitalized at least twice since the early 1990s, according to records and reports.
Ratzinger is the first Germanic pope in nearly 1,000 years. There were at least three German popes in the 11th century. The last pope from a German-speaking land was Victor II, bishop of Eichstatt, who reigned from 1055-57.
Like John Paul, whose country was occupied by the Nazis, Ratzinger also has a World War II legacy.
In his memoirs, he wrote of being enrolled in Hitler’s Nazi youth movement against his will when he was 14 in 1941, when membership was compulsory. He says he was soon let out because of his studies for the priesthood.
Two years later, he was drafted into a Nazi anti-aircraft unit as a helper, a common fate for teenage boys too young to be soldiers. Enrolled as a soldier at 18, in the last months of the war, he barely finished basic training.
“We are certain that he will continue on the path of reconciliation between Christians and Jews that John Paul II began,” said Paul Spiegel, head of Germany’s main Jewish organization.