Pope Benedict To Show His Softer Side On U.S. Trip

Benedict XVI will visit president, address U.N. during 6-day visit

When Pope Benedict XVI visits Washington, D.C., and New York this week, he’ll be following the tough act of his popular predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who traveled the world and whose seven U.S. visits drew millions of worshippers and ignited a youth renewal movement in the church.

So far, the travels of Pope Benedict are best known for riots he inadvertently set off in the Islamic world when he quoted a medieval emperor who had called Islam a violent faith.

Contrary to the impression created by that furor, what’s driving the pope’s visit this week is a desire to call people of different faiths — especially Christians and Muslims — to work together for world peace.

In an era when best-sellers argue that religion is the root of violence, “he is coming primarily to address the question of world peace, and the fact that religion must play a role in the resolution toward peace, because it is a religious matter,” said the Rev. Jerome Vereb, a Pittsburgh priest acquainted with the planning.

Benedict has built his visit around an address to the United Nations on Friday. He arrives Tuesday in Washington, where he will celebrate his 81st birthday, meet with President Bush, bishops, Catholic college presidents and leaders of non-Christian faiths.

On Friday he goes to New York, where he will celebrate his third anniversary as pope, address the U.N., leaders of other Christian traditions, Catholic youth, priests and seminarians. He will visit a synagogue and Ground Zero.

A large Mass will be held in a baseball stadium in each city.

His ambassador to the U.S. has said that a private meeting with survivors of sexual abuse by priests remains a possibility.

Pope Benedict, whose earlier work as the Vatican’s guardian of doctrine led many to expect a hard-line papacy of condemnations, is expected to bring an upbeat message about the Catholic faith and to avoid public scolding of dissenters.

“What he will not do is wag fingers,” said Brennan Pursell, an associate history professor at DeSales University in Allentown, Lehigh County, told The New York Times. “He will present what the church offers.”

He has insisted that Catholicism be known for joy, not for prohibitions. He often speaks in intimate spiritual terms, calling others to “friendship with Christ.”

Americans “are going to experience a warm, caring, kind person who happens also to be extremely bright, very intelligent and extraordinarily capable,” said Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., the former Pittsburgh bishop.

A Pew study found that 74 percent of Catholics and 52 percent of Americans view Pope Benedict favorably, a view confirmed by another poll, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to coincide with the pope’s visit, to be released today. But nearly one-third of Americans — and 15 percent of Catholics — say they don’t know much about him.

In a way, that doesn’t matter, said Archbishop Wuerl. A pope is important because he is the successor of St. Peter.

When Catholics look at him “they will see Peter,” he said.

“We will be seeing him as a spiritual leader, as our pastoral leader, as chief shepherd of the whole church. What will he bring? The short answer to that is he will bring us Christ.”

With ex-Catholics making up 10 percent of the U.S. adult population, “the visit … will be a warm and convincing invitation to come home,” Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal ambassador, has told U.S. bishops.

Tom Peterson, founder of CatholicsComeHome.org, agrees. When he was 15, he said, Pope John Paul’s 1987 visit to Phoenix changed his life. He felt a bond with the pope that led him to follow the pope’s call to become an evangelist.

This visit will help because “Pope Benedict’s message is one of hope and joy,” he said.

Talking up moral law

Because this is a presidential election year, there have been attempts to frame the visit in political terms. That is a mistake, observers say.

“The pope’s message, if you take it in its totality, is going to be a net wash, in that he’s going to hit the pro-life issues and of course he’s also visiting Ground Zero, which is an indirect acknowledgement of the reality of the terrorist threat. In some ways that could be seen to help the conservatives in American politics,” said Vatican analyst John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter.

“On the other hand, he is likely also to talk about the need to combat terrorism, not just militarily but also through economic development and through peace building. He will give a strong thumbs up to the role of the U.N. He will talk about multi-lateralism and foreign policy. All of those things … probably help the liberals in some sense.”

Before he was pope, he opposed plans for the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. As pope he has repeatedly deplored the violence there, but has not called for swift withdrawal.

Some liberal groups have criticized him for coming to talk, not to listen. Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, for gay Catholics, is among them. But Pope Benedict has been less inclined to public condemnation of gays than was his predecessor, he said.

“It’s been a kinder, gentler repression,” he said.

The pope did a lot of listening prior to the trip, said U.S. Military Archbishop Timothy Broglio, a former Vatican diplomat.

“The picture presented to the Holy Father is always a very realistic one. It’s good news and bad news … not some fictitious image of the U.S.,” he said.

Mr. Allen believes that Pope Benedict has a positive view of Catholicism in the U.S. He knows that Mass attendance is far higher here than in Europe, and that the U.S. has achieved a level of ethnic and religious goodwill unheard of in much of the world.

On Wednesday he will visit President Bush. A White House statement said they will discuss “advancing peace throughout the Middle East and other troubled regions, promoting inter-faith understanding and strengthening human rights and freedom, especially religious liberty around the world.”

At the U.N., papal biographer George Weigel said he expects him to build on Pope John Paul’s efforts to make religious freedom central to human rights.

“I expect Benedict XVI to pick up on this and to talk about the natural moral law — the moral truths we can know by reason — as a kind of universal grammar by which the world can have a genuine conversation about its future,” he said.

His interfaith meeting will likely herald that theme.

“If religions will not set themselves as a valid instrument of peace, they will be abandoned by the youth,” Archbishop Sambi recently told Religion News Service.

The pope’s speech that led to Muslim riots was a plea for faith to work with reason as a bulwark against tyranny and fanaticism. And, it turned out, it provoked constructive responses from Islamic scholars. They proposed working on ethical issues with Christian scholars on the basis of similar commandments to love God and neighbor. The Vatican founded a Catholic-Muslim Forum to do so.

“Benedict XVI does not understand himself to be launching a new crusade. He understands himself to be trying to stimulate a reform within Islam because … in Benedict XVI’s world view, the real threat today is not Islam. The real threat is what he’s referred to as a dictatorship of relativism,” Mr. Allen told a Pew Forum gathering.

Pope John Paul’s visits forged friendships with the Jewish community, said Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Center for Inter-religious Understanding in New Jersey. Although Pope Benedict is still finding his way in interfaith relations,

“We have to say that his instincts are good,” Rabbi Bemporad said.

Pope John Paul’s visits were also important for relationships with other Christians, said the Rev. Donald McCoid, the former Lutheran bishop of Pittsburgh, who will meet Pope Benedict as the ecumenical representative of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

He believes Pope Benedict is committed to those relationships and that his refusal to call Protestant bodies “churchesR#8221; has been badly misinterpreted. The pope is clear about what separates different Christian traditions so that a path to unity can be found, he said.

One of his most important “in-house” meetings will be with presidents of Catholic colleges and universities. Some conservative activists expect him to upbraid the presidents for being insufficiently Catholic. But Archbishop Sambi rejected that idea in an interview with Mr. Allen, saying that the activists were trying to use the pope for their own agenda.

“There are too many people here who would like to be the pope … and who attribute to themselves a strong sense of their own infallibility,” Archbishop Sambi said.

Dr. Weigel pointed out that the pope is a former professor.

“The idea that the pope would come here and tell Catholic colleges and universities that they ought to become essentially catechetics factories, churning out people who have not learned the tools of critical thinking, is just ludicrous,” he said.

What papal visits accomplish

There is wide agreement that Pope John Paul’s 1993 visit to Denver for World Youth Day changed his image here. Stories in the mass media led up to the visit with grim stories about young Catholics who rejected church teaching. Then their cameras focused on 500,000 young Catholics who walked miles to see the pope and cheered as if he were a rock star.

Denver “helped to launch what we now regularly call the John Paul II generation” who are enthusiastic about the Catholic faith, Dr. Weigel said.

Back then Mike Sullivan, now president of Catholics United for the Faith in Steubenville, Ohio, was a college student in Denver who considered himself a good Catholic, but didn’t live up to it.

“The pope brought a passion that really inspired all of us in an amazing way,” he said. “It led me into wanting to study theology and take my faith more seriously.”

At least 20 percent of U.S. priests ordained since 2005 — when the question was first asked — attended a World Youth Day with the pope. It was 35 percent for diocesan priests ordained in 2006.

But for all of the stories of lives changed, there are doubts that papal visits change the big picture. While Pope John Paul moved some men toward priesthood, it wasn’t enough to replace those who are retiring or dying, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. While young Catholics cheer for the pope, surveys show that few of them hold firmly to key beliefs.

“Of course, the argument could be made that things would be even worse if he hadn’t made these visits. But church life in Catholicism is in the parish. Frankly, it makes a bigger difference who your pastor is than who the pope is,” he said.

But Helen Alvare, who teaches family law at the Catholic University of America, believes this visit will bear fruit over time. Nearly 30 years after Pope John Paul’s first visit, she said, many of her male students are named John Paul.

Americans may not have agreed with everything he said, but he put concerns about a culture of life and a culture of death on the agendas of even secular intellectuals, said Ms. Alvare, who was formerly the U.S. bishops’ spokesman on abortion.

She predicts that Pope Benedict will win his audience.

“If you’re a person who hasn’t formed an opinion already … if you honestly listen to him, it’s hard not to be attracted to what he says,” she said.