The man who would become pope benedict XVI began the year behind a desk. Granted, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was no ordinary shuffler of Vatican papers; indeed, he had long been celebrated by Church conservatives as the architect of Pope John Paul II's doctrinal policy and vilified by progressives as the panzerkardinal who defended Catholic orthodoxy with the impenetrability of a tank. Yet Ratzinger's quotidian reality was essentially that of an exalted Catholic Church bureaucrat. Working the day shift at Church headquarters for 23 years meant studying and safeguarding the Gospels, not preaching it.
On March 31, Ratzinger was in his Vatican office when the phone rang with bad news. John Paul's long and brave battle with failing health looked to be nearing its end, and as the dean of the College of Cardinals it would be Ratzinger's duty to formally notify his brother Cardinals once the Pope had died. Ratzinger hurried into a black Mercedes and was driven from the office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, around the one-lane road behind St. Peter's Basilica, to the elevator that would bring him up to the Pope's private quarters. It was around noon when the Cardinal approached the Holy Father's bedside. John Paul's condition had deteriorated that morning. The same throat infection that had twice sent him to Gemelli hospital had begun to spread through his body. Apart from his curial position, Ratzinger was there as one of the Pope's dearest friends, and Vatican insiders have quietly speculated about this final encounter between the two men. Some, according to Vatican sources, actually believe the Pope prophesied to Ratzinger that the German would be his successor. Whatever form the conversation took, the Church administrator was indeed chosen three weeks later by his brother Cardinals to succeed John Paul II.
The new Pope has stepped onto the world stage with grace, warmth and an understated clout, qualities that make him our choice for European Newsmaker of the Year. A man often described as methodical and contemplative even downright shy has created a charisma all his own, one that seems to defy our turn-up-the-volume, look-at-me times. At 78, Benedict is the archetype of the quiet, lifelong believer who suddenly sees it is his turn to speak up, a rejuvenated old soul surprisingly well-equipped for his final mission. Father Joseph Fessio, who has known the Pope since the 1970s, said his former professor "actually seems healthier, younger, more radiant, more at peace" since assuming the papal throne.