Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Feminine Genius of Benedict XVI

Yesterday, I addressed "The Pope's Men," the trusted and respected Ratzinger aides -- all clerics -- whose counsel and services will be called on by Benedict XVI. But the most interesting presence among all these deserves an entry of her own.

In the reign of the last Pope with German cred, Pius XII brought with him his most loyal aide and counselor, a strong woman whose judgment he trusted implicitly, and who had been his gatekeeper since his days as Nuncio in Berlin. This woman, of course, was the famous (or infamous, depending on one's point of view) Sr. Pasqualina Lenhert, known to her significant enemies in Pius' Vatican as "La Papessa" -- "The Popess."

Now, for the first time since Luther, another German has taken the papal throne. And Ratzinger, too, has at his side a strong, accomplished woman whose presence and loyalty over a decade and a half has helped him run the trains on time. While I reported yesterday that Josef Clemens, the Pope's "beloved son," escorted Georg Ratzinger to his seat before the Sunday Inaugural, with them was a figure whose low profile in public belies the Pope's greatest confidence behind closed doors.

To say that Dr. Ingrid Stampa is, as reports are calling her, "The Pope's Maid" are an insult to her intelligence, and to her crucial role in the life and work of Joseph Ratzinger. She is an academic, a musician, a polyglot. And for the new Pope whom she has served as a brain trust, translator, companion and guardian, she has been -- at least, until now -- his best-kept secret.

The reports coming from Rome in the past week are just fascinating, and they should give any woman irrationally frightened of Benedict's ascent a great deal to meditate on. Dr. Stampa was seen last week coordinating the move of the Pope's library from the Citta' Leonina apartment to the Apostolic Palace. During one of his visits to the Leonina last week, we're told, Benedict XVI sent Stampa out to quiet down the press. "[The Pope] is writing his installation homily," she announced -- and then went back inside to collaborate on it with the Holy Father, his private secretary Georg Ganswein and, most likely, Clemens.

Ask yourself this: Did John Paul have a woman of this kind of daily influence in the Apartment? He had the Polish nuns, but they cooked and held the medicine bags. They were not theologians.

As we've seen with his CDF aides, Ratzinger has no problem with his inner circle doing portavoce for him on-record, and so Stampa (who has lived in the Leonina apartment since the Pope's sister died in 1991) was again called on to do the media rounds and deny that the Pope had any cats at his cardinalatial apartment, and provide some background color on his private life.

But the greatest testimony to her influence on Benedict, and why she is The One to Watch in the weeks to come, comes from Election Day itself. The cardinals were still, technically, confined in the Conclave enclosure, barred from contact with the outside world until they had eaten with the new Pope. Yet Benedict called for Stampa, to whom he said in a side salon of the Domus as she wept seeing him in the white vestments: "Dear sister, together let us do God's will."

Eight days in, the will of this pontificate is establishing itself as one of sophistication, trust, and "adult faith" -- a buzzword which, coming from the Pope, is edifying beyond belief. We'll see how Benedict proves the trust placed in him in the coming months and years; his team -- well, the team that counts -- is already in place and ready to go.

And a woman shall lead them....



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