The Cardinals' Choice

updated 05/02/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/2005 01:00AM

Two weeks after the death of John Paul II, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church were at a somber meeting in Rome when one among them recalled it was the 78th birthday of their colleague, German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The rest of the cardinals began to applaud, says a Vatican spokesman, but "after a hand wave by Ratzinger, the group got back to business."

Not to worry. The real birthday present came three days later, when the church's ranking clergy elected Ratzinger—who took the name Benedict XVI—as the first German pope in nearly 1,000 years. "The cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord," Ratzinger told the throngs in St. Peter's Square shouting "Viva il Papa!" ("Long live the Pope!"). "I entrust myself to your prayers."

It was a humble statement from a Vatican hard-liner better known for being in conservative lockstep with his predecessor, John Paul, and his equally strict policing of dissent within the church. Nicknamed the Enforcer for his work at the head of the church's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (formerly the Inquisition) Ratzinger once derided rock music as "a vehicle of antireligion," blasted homosexuality as "an intrinsic moral evil" and told a reporter that media reports on the church sexual abuse scandals in America were part of a "planned campaign." But the onetime Archbishop of Munich, who unwinds by playing Mozart at the piano, is also described by friends as having a quick sense of humor and great personal warmth. Says Dr. Luzian Lamza, a German priest who has worked at the Vatican for 30 years: "The new Pope will continue in the name of John Paul II, focusing on the most important part of his work—the question of values."

As Benedict XVI, he's already shown political sophistication. When Philadelphia's Cardinal Justin Rigali, who happened to be celebrating his own birthday on the day of the election, was offering congratulations to his new boss in the Sistine Chapel, Benedict paused to wish him a happy birthday. "Of all the things he had to think about," says Rigali. "I was moved."

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