GENOA, Italy — When Pope Benedict XVI was elected, many Italians figured the German pope might pay less attention to them than his predecessor.
Pope John Paul II, a Pole, made it a point to reach out pastorally to Italians in Rome and beyond, crisscrossing the country on more than 120 visits. But John Paul was younger, and as the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years, he had an extra reason to remind Italians of his affection and interest.
Benedict, it turns out, has been no less attentive to his adopted country. Already he’s made pastoral visits to 11 Italian cities, and more are on his calendar.
These are not cameo appearances, either. In Genoa and Savona over the weekend, he presided over seven major events and delivered six talks, spending more than 12 hours with the faithful.
The venues in Genoa were packed, but of course not everyone shows up at the Masses and other encounters. Italians are divided over the role of the church and the voice of the pope in social affairs. I think one reason is that he’s a constant presence in the culture. It’s much different to host the pope for a five-day visit, as the United States did in April. Italians have him every day.
The Italians who crowded the streets in Genoa seemed to welcome the German pope as one of their own. For the people I spoke with, his being German was a total non-issue.
The pope knows Italy, having lived in the country for nearly 30 years. He also knows how to hit the right notes when he travels here, tapping into local history and tradition to make his larger points. His first stop in Liguria was at the popular 16th-century shrine of Our Lady of Mercy, where he placed the offering of a gilt rose. Standing near the historic port of Genoa this afternoon, he described the string of coastal churches and Marian sanctuaries positioned like a “crown between the mountains and the sea.”
The pope commemorated the many missionaries who left Genoa for the New World. But he also recalled the ordinary emigrants, materially poor but rich in faith and spiritual values, which they transplanted to the Americas. In a sense, he recognized that they were missionaries, too.