It was bound to happen in the first few seconds of any TV story or the first few paragraphs of most print accounts of the pope's visit: some mention of Pope Benedict XVI's "lack of charisma" especially in contrast to his predecessor John Paul II.
ABC News was making that statement last night as I edited a story about the 15th anniversary of the destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. I had to think to myself, is charisma really necessary for a religious leader?
Granted there have been plenty of holy men, who were well liked and attracted a crowd -- JPII, Billy Graham, Rick Warren. But more often than not, it seems that when religious leaders are described as "charismatic" bad things happen. Think David Koresh, Jim Bakker, Jim Jones.
Benedict may not be a rock star, but he is a deep theologian and thinker. Even more appropriate to his office, he is a teacher, capable of translating complex ideas into ordinary language. We need more of those, in all denominations.
I have visited lots of new churches, where the worship services are full of glitz and flash and the pastor is a laid back, easy to talk to guy. But they are startling in the lack of substance. One pastor even told me he didn't think theology was important. I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying something inappropriate.
In a way, that pastor can't be blamed. As a society we seem hung up on the idea of likability and convenience. It's even permeated the presidential election. Tell me what I need to know in two minutes or less. How do you get people to sit in church or even in a Bible study at home and wrestle with complex issues?
Polls show deep disagreements between American Catholics and the teachings of the church. I wonder how many of them have tried to understand why the church teaches what it does or if they have dismissed it was being "out of touch."
Slowly though, we're seeing a change. Those denominations that are growing -- Pentecostals, Mormons -- demand much from their members. And I've talked to plenty of friends who want substance from their spiritual leaders. They want to be challenged. Personally, I am much more impressed by local pastors who have a great grasp of their theology even if I don't agree with it.
Maybe that is what American Christians can learn from Benedict XVI. Ideas and theology are important, and they are not easily grasped. We must be less concerned with high-tech, high-energy and more concerned about what we believe, why we believe it and how it can change the world.