Pope Benedict XVI thawed his previously chilly image on Wednesday by producing as his first message to his worldwide flock a notably warm rumination on the nature of love.
Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) marked Benedict's first encyclical or pastoral letter to the 1.1 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church since his election last April and was greeted last night with some astonishment and relief among senior Catholics.
The 71-page document spoke of love between men and women and also of the need for unconditional love towards all mankind. But it also warned against the word becoming reduced to a sexual commodity.
"I wish ... to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others ... In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant. Love is free; it is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends."
Its central message was far from the finger-wagging, "thou shalt not" tone that characterized some of his predecessor's pronouncements and contrasted with Benedict's own stern reputation during his 24 years as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy.
Catholic observers suggested that the document, written largely by the Pope himself during the latter half of last year, represented a truer indication of his nature than his image would suggest.
Monsignor Andrew Faley, assistant general secretary of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, said: "I think it is a wonderful document. It is much more reflective and conversational in tone and less prescriptive than some past encyclicals. He is calling on people to reflect on the central truth of love. We are seeing the substance of the man as a pastor and shepherd of the flock. A cuddly Benedict? Well, well."
The second half of the encyclical deals with the need for charity as an extension of God's love for humanity. But the Pope insisted he was not looking for the church to replace the state.
While the encyclical did not break new ground or revise Church policy on sexual issues -- toward gays or on birth control for instance -- it was certainly more emollient than many Vatican documents in the recent past and its message is likely to determine the character of Benedict XVI's papacy.