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When Joseph Ratzinger stepped out on to the central loggia of St Peter's Basilica and gave his first blessing as Pope Bene­dict XVI urbi et orbi (to the city and the world), more than a few observers expected that this elderly Bavarian theologian would be an interim pope: a bridge between more than a quarter of a century of Polish dynamism, embodied in John Paul II, and the true 21st-­century pope to follow. In a little over three years, however, the octogenarian Benedict has made it quite clear that he is anything but a placeholder. Indeed, a case can be made that he has emerged from the shadow of his great predecessor to become a major world figure in his own right and an acute analyst of the dynamics of world culture and politics.

Benedict XVI has also displayed a winsome public personality that has surprised even those who enthusiastically celebrated his election to the papacy. At his weekly general audiences, often held in St Peter's Square to accommodate numbers that cannot be fitted into the Vatican audience hall, he frequently draws crowds larger than John Paul II did at the height of the Great Jubilee of 2000. Moreover, those crowds come to listen and to learn; one veteran Vatican official remarked recently: "I've never seen people taking notes at papal audiences before."

Then there were Benedict's two most recent forays into the Anglosphere. In Washington and New York in April, the enthusiasm with which he was received and the deftness of his public touch shocked the American press corps, much of which had convinced itself beforehand that Benedict XVI simply wasn't a good story. In Sydney, he was the magnet that drew together the largest religious congregation - indeed, the largest human event - in Australian history as he cele­brated the triennial World Youth Day with hundreds of thousands of youthful pilgrims from all over the world.

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