Missing from the responses was the "huh?" factor, that flummoxed half-shrug that says, "Never heard of him." Even soon-to-be-major popes have stirred up that response on this side of the Atlantic. Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, was scarcely known outside the Polish neighborhoods of Detroit and Chicago when he was named John Paul II in 1978. Angelo Roncalli was just a face from the Vatican diplomatic corps, an elderly patriarch of Venice, when the white smoke went up in 1958 and he emerged as John XXIII.
Everybody seemed to know Ratzinger.
In Wichita, at a noontime mass at St. Anthony's Church, 25 parishioners prayed for the new pope before heading into a blustery, overcast afternoon. They spoke of the man in Rome as they might chat about their own bishop. Restaurant owner Randy Simon, for example, likes what he knows about Ratzinger as a Vatican insider and Pope John Paul II's doctrinal strongman.
"It's not a club where you change the rules as you go along," said Simon, 55. "It's a faith, and you abide by the rules of the faith."
Nearby was Pat Hommertzheim, 71, who feels just as strongly that the Vatican is making a mistake by choosing a traditionalist. In a church facing a shortage of priests -- one in six U.S. parishes have no priest -- "we need to let the priests marry, and then we would have more," Hommertzheim said. Priests with wives and children, she added, would be better able to understand the real lives of the faithful "and what it costs to take care of the children."
Of course, this was all just Day One of the papacy of Benedict XVI, and being pope is an entirely new job to go with the new name. Shea said it is typical of Americans to think of church controversies in terms of U.S. politics, to divide the players into right wing and left wing when figures such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI oppose all political systems that try to reduce individual humans to social machinery.
The Rev. Joseph Galante, bishop of Camden, N.J., agreed.
"I think what must always be kept in mind is that different jobs have . . . different responsibilities," Galante said. As the keeper of orthodoxy, Ratzinger focused on doctrine. "Now the role has expanded.
"So let's wait and see," the bishop counseled. "I won't judge Benedict XVI by the role that Cardinal Ratzinger had to play."
Staff writers Bill Broadway in Washington and Peter Slevin in Wichita contributed to this report.