At Catholic University in Washington, undergraduateshave been thinking up chants to shout when they greet Pope Benedict XVIon their campus later this week.
"Students are very excited and ready to welcome ourpontiff, and express our love and support for him during what manywould describe as a difficult time in the church," said sophomoreJonathan Jerome of Charlotte, N.C.
• The News: PopeBenedict will find a more troubled American church than the one thathonored his predecessor on the last papal visit 13 years ago.
• The Problems: Thechurch is struggling in the U.S. with a demanding laity, financiallybroke parishes, shuttered schools and social services and, in someplaces, additional sexual-abuse cases.
• Action Unexpected: FewCatholics believe the pope, who will turn 81 years old during the trip,has the time or inclination to fix the problems sapping the Americanchurch. But at the U.N. Friday, he may talk about Iraq, Darfur and theprohibition of any kind of violence done in the name of faith.
But even the most fervent Catholics acknowledge thatPope Benedict will find a more troubled American church than the onethat honored his predecessor during the most recent papal visit, 13years ago. With 64 million members, the church is struggling with ademanding and restless laity, financially broke parishes, shutteredschools and social services and, in some locales, additionalsexual-abuse cases, six years after the nation learned of thewidespread scandal.
While many Catholics are eager to meet the faith'sleader, few believe the pontiff, who will turn 81 years old during thetrip, has the time or inclination to try to fix the problems sappingthe American church.
However bruised the church might appear to Americans,it is far more active and engaged than in Western Europe, where about10% of Catholics regularly attend Mass. In the U.S., about a third ofCatholics regularly attend worship. Parishes, especially in California,have been invigorated by the wave of Latino immigration.
"The pope knows the Catholic Church in America is themost vibrant Catholic Church in the developed world," said GeorgeWeigel, a scholar with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, aWashington think tank. "He's not coming to read the riot act. He'scoming to challenge people to do more and do better."
Papal watchers expect that some of the pope's deepestconcerns will be discussed on Friday, during the pontiff's speechbefore the United Nations. He is expected to talk about Iraq, maybeDarfur and the prohibition of any kind of violence done in the name offaith. He will meet President Bush, talk with Catholic educators, visita synagogue and Ground Zero in New York, and say two Masses inballparks.
Several U.S. Catholics described the visit as a papalpep rally, designed to cheer the team during hard times. Catholicfund-raisers, such as Ed Orzechowski, president of Catholic Charitiesof the Archdiocese of Washington, say they hope the visit will prodCatholics to give more, though they expect any benefit will betemporary. The Washington nonprofit, which is serving 700 more people amonth than in 2006, ran in the red last year by $300,000.
Money has been a divisive subject. Victims of clergysex abuse, and critics seeking greater accountability from bishops aswell as more fiscal transparency, are expected to stage protests. Since1993, Catholics have consistently donated about $8.7 billion annuallyto their parishes. But the $2 billion legal liability from thesexual-abuse scandal and rising costs -- including those for personnel,maintenance of buildings and caring for elderly clergy -- has forced afire sale of property and closing of Catholic institutions. There are700 fewer parishes than in 1995, with more than half of those closedbetween 2002 and 2006.
Such moves have energized lay groups that aredemanding that the church openly discuss its legal issues and finances."Catholics are not the bishops' ATMs," said Peter Borré of Boston, wholeads Coalition of Parishes, a group fighting closings in severaldioceses. He says that each shuttered parish in Boston has prompteddozens of families to stop attending Mass.
Some Catholics view such lay involvement as a sign ofthe church's health, said Paul Lakeland, a professor of Catholictheology at Fairfield University in Connecticut. With pressures risingfrom militant Islam and the advance of world poverty, "I do not believethe state of the American church is high on the papal agenda," he said.
Write to Suzanne Sataline at firstname.lastname@example.org