Warm words and a wagging finger from new Pope

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The Independent Online

Pope Benedict XVI practically bounded on to the stage of a hall behind the Vatican yesterday morning to give his thanks to the world's media for their coverage of recent events.

Pope Benedict XVI practically bounded on to the stage of a hall behind the Vatican yesterday morning to give his thanks to the world's media for their coverage of recent events.

"Thank you for coming," he beamed, "and particularly for the service you have rendered the Holy See and the Catholic Church in these days ... Thanks to your work, for several weeks the attention of the entire world has remained fixed on the Basilica [of St Peter's], on St Peter's Square and on the Apostolic Palace."

Those of us in the audience who believed that we had merely been covering a major news story stood corrected: we were the servants of the Holy See. But most of the 2,000-odd journalists in the hall seemed happy with this interpretation of their work, to judge by the waves of applause that greeted the new pontiff.

Coming on the heels of John Paul II, undoubtedly the most media-savvy pontiff ever, Benedict XVI seems keenly aware how much he needs us. And he wasted no time in inviting us over: after greeting the cardinals who elected him, this encounter was the next thing on his to-do list, even before his inauguration today.

But having said thank you, he couldn't resist a word of admonition. "In order for the means of social communication" - that's us -"to render positive service to the common good, a responsible contribution is required."

Could this be a quick crack on the wrists to The Sun, for its Hun-baiting coverage? A clear sense of "ethical responsibility" was required, he went on. Only by a "sincere search for the truth and the safeguarding of the centrality and dignity of the human being" can the media "fulfil the purpose of God, who has put them at our disposal."

So that was clear. We assembled in the Paul VI Hall, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Don't Knows and None of the Aboves, to fulfil God's purpose - if we were doing our jobs properly, that is.

Benedict took no questions, unlike his predecessor, who fielded them for 40 minutes at his first press encounter. And the new Pope shocked Spaniards and Latin Americans in the audience by reading his brief message in Italian, English, French and German, but not in the language of half the Catholic world: some wondered if this might be an oblique rebuke to Spain's Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, for giving Spain's homosexuals the right to marry - condemned by a top Vatican official this week as "an iniquitous law" - so painfully soon after the papal election.

But for most the pontiff's first press outing was a revelation, despite his finger-wagging. After so many years of a painfully ageing Pope, it was relief to have this small, bounding, beaming figure in our midst, as frisky as a spring lamb despite his 78 years. Benedict's words may have been tough, but his body language suggested a man immensely at ease in his new job.

Vatican reporters are accustomed to the severe Cardinal Ratzinger who never encountered adulation, huge crowds craning for a sight of him, hundreds chanting his name. The experience appears to have melted some block in the man. That's why a new Pope must have a new name: taking on this job must be like being reborn.

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