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Away from spotlight, pope sets his own course

VATICAN CITY -- No one would ever accuse Pope Benedict XVI of being overly charismatic. Benedict prefers quiet study, or the professorial delivery of a homily, over the flashy performances before adoring crowds that his predecessor favored.

Since his election one year ago today, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has confounded critics and supporters alike and begun to reshape the papacy. In the process, he has emerged slowly but steadily from the shadows of the late John Paul II, who reigned longer than almost any other pope.

Benedict is fashioning a streamlined pontificate, a more distilled leadership that shuns (or at least dims) the spotlight on himself and focuses instead on reviving the broader Roman Catholic Church.

Where the gregarious John Paul thrived before massive audiences spanning the globe, Benedict has chosen to narrow his exposure. He has reduced the number of meetings and lunches he has with visitors, removed himself from ceremonies beatifying potential saints, plans to limit travel, and will do more of his own writing while delegating fewer documents and decisions to his staff.

John Paul was so consumed with a globetrotting evangelism that he often neglected some of the more mundane but critical business of the Vatican. Benedict, many Vatican-watchers say, will be a better hands-on administrator. At the same time, he is reserved and prudent. He has not launched the kind of major overhaul of the Curia, hunting the heads of opponents, that some predicted. Instead, he launched a careful recapture of traditional aspects of the papacy while fighting for a revival of Catholic identity in the increasingly secular West.

''The church needed a rest; the problem of overexposure of [John Paul] was a problem for the church, and Benedict has decided to stay behind the curtain," said Alberto Melloni, Italian historian and author of a forthcoming book on Benedict's first year.

For a quarter century, the German-born prelate served as the Vatican's chief defender of official Catholic doctrine, earning a reputation as a strict, conservative theologian. Many Catholics expected Benedict would crack down on dissent after he became pope. Instead, his papacy has been much more nuanced. There have been displays of his orthodoxy. Days after his installation, for example, Father Thomas Reese, the highly regarded editor of the Jesuit magazine America, was forced to resign. Under Reese, the magazine had engaged in open discussion of controversial topics such as gays in the priesthood. His dismissal was seen as an attempt by Rome to quiet debate.

Benedict has given priority to bringing back to the Catholic fold the archconservative group known as the Society of St. Pius X, followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, in part because he agrees with them.

They split with the Vatican over church reforms in the mid-1960s, including the decision to allow Mass to be said in languages other than Latin. And the first major document issued under Benedict's watch was a stern reiteration of the church's ban on gay priests. Men with what he called ''deep-seated homosexual tendencies" should not become priests, the pope declared.

Yet other developments reflected a more open side. His first encyclical, the most important form of writing that a pope produces, focused on human love -- without judgmental mentions of contraception and reproduction.

And one of Benedict's first meetings was with a church dissident he had censured years earlier, Hans Kueng. The encounter was described as warm and friendly.

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