Benedict The Brave

It is the privilege of the United States today to welcome Pope Benedict, shepherd of the globe’s 1.1 billion Catholics, for the first trip to America of his pontificate.

Papal travels by their nature generate excitement and fervor. There’s plenty of both in New York in anticipation of the three days Benedict plans to spend here starting Friday. Tickets to his Mass at Yankee Stadium are as prized as can be.

But this visit by this Pope has the added feel of history in the making.

President Bush will greet Benedict on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, marking the first time a President is known to have extended such a show of respect to a global leader. The following day there will be a second presidential ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House.

The symbolic closeness will not be lost on the world.

By appearing so visibly with Bush, Benedict will make a powerful statement of admiration for America’s dedication to human rights, including the practice of religion. Whatever the country’s failings, we are a more churchgoing people than most of our brethren in the West.

At the same time, Bush will stand with a man who has become a pivotal figure in addressing perhaps the most difficult challenge of the age: the building of bridges between the Muslim and Judeo-Christian traditions.

Three years into his papacy, Benedict is a courageous voice in dialogue with Islam. His message has been that mankind can’t thrive by approaching life either through reason without faith or through faith without reason.

The former leads to a deadening of the soul, while the latter can produce atrocities the likes of 9/11. Reflecting that truth, in 2006, the pontiff, during a lecture in Germany, quoted a Byzantine emperor’s criticism of Islam – and touched off a wave of violence.

Since then, Benedict and Islamic leaders have established a Catholic-Muslim Forum that will meet twice yearly – once in the Vatican, once in Jordan – to discuss religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

The Pope has also met with King Abdullah, ruler of Saudi Arabia‘s closed society, who subsequently announced his own plans to begin conversations among Muslims, Christians and Jews. Most astonishing, the king started talks aimed at permitting the Vatican to build Saudi Arabia’s first Catholic church.

There will, of course, be far more to Benedict’s sojourn in the United States than relations between Islam and other religions.

The Pope will speak to his faithful about matters ranging from his expectations for Catholic higher ed to the sex-abuse scandal that torments the church. And his United Nations address on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be a high point.