VATICAN CITY—Acknowledging that he has perhaps been laying it on a little thick with the religion stuff lately, Pope Benedict XVI said Wednesday that he was making a concerted effort to take all his incessant Jesus talk down a notch.
Though he reassured followers that he was still the head of the 1.1 billion–member Roman Catholic Church and an unwavering believer in the divinity of Christ, the pope suggested he might have an easier time communicating with people if he wasn't up in everyone's face about Jesus all the time.
"I just want to rein it in a smidge," Benedict said. "While I alone among men have been chosen to represent the Son of God upon this earth, I've found that if you have a big chip on your shoulder about something like that, it can be pretty alienating to people."
"I'd like to think I can be an infallible ecclesiastical authority without ramming it down people's throats," the pope said. "I'm starting to realize what a huge turn-off that is."
In a routine papal blessing Sunday at St. Peter's Square, Benedict made far fewer mentions of Jesus than usual and only cited scripture twice, opting instead for such uncharacteristic phraseology as "Sorry if this sounds preachy," "I'm not here to judge," and "Hey, this works for me, but by all means, feel free to do your own thing, too."
Benedict said the turning point came for him last week with the publication of book two in his New York Times–bestselling Jesus Of Nazareth trilogy, a series the pope now claims he should have ended after the first book.
"I'm flipping though this thing and I'm thinking, 'Man, I sound like a broken record, don't I?'" said Benedict, opening to a random page of the new book and pointing out a "crazy" number of references to the Son of God. "It's just Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Page after page of nothing but Jesus. Who wants to read that?"
To temper his past hyperbole with regard to Jesus, the Supreme Pontiff said he is now at work on an encyclical in which he will call upon Catholics to relax a little and not treat every aspect of church doctrine "as if it were the end-all, be-all of the whole universe or something."
Benedict added that his staff is exploring options for scaling back the opulent Vatican into something that, while still glorifying to God, isn't quite so over-the-top about it. The pope said he also hoped to tone down some of the more grandiose aspects of his own appearance, noting that some might find his extravagant wardrobe of luxurious, hand-woven cassocks and velvet capes to be off-putting.
Tugging at his heavily embroidered vestments, Benedict said, "These robes, this hat. It's a bit much, right? I don't see why I can't just go to a beatification ceremony or a papal audience wearing a nice dress shirt and some slacks: It's respectful, it's dignified, but it's not like I'm going in with guns blazing, either."
Benedict has gone so far as to compose an edict to all Catholic clergy urging them to follow his example and maybe dial the religion back a click or two.
"Please, definitely keep giving your sermons and celebrating the Lord," Benedict wrote in his official decree. "But play it mellow with the Jesus material—give it some room to breathe, you know? Trust me, you'll get your point across better if you're not so heavy-handed."
Vatican sources confirmed many within the pope's inner circle were deeply concerned by this new philosophy, but others told reporters they have come around to the lighter-on-the-Jesus approach after initial doubts.
"I was worried at first," Cardinal Lorenzo Antonetti said. "Then His Holiness reassured me that whatever words he chose, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and the distribution of condoms in starving, AIDS-ravaged nations would always remain abominations. That calmed all my fears."