BenedictXVI arrives Tuesday for a six-day visit to America, which he sees as apotential role model for melding religion into daily life.
VATICAN CITY -- In his first pilgrimage to the United States as pope,Benedict XVI will minister to a Roman Catholic Church that is bothtroubled and alive with faith.
From the Vatican, the church in America is often seen as problematic,consumed by sex abuse scandals and populated by "cafeteria Catholics"who pick and choose the religious rules they want to follow, casuallyadjusting doctrine to meet the demands of their busy lives in an overlypermissive society.
But Benedict sees a dynamic church, onethat has navigated with fair success the maze of living a faithful lifein a secular, materialistic world. For him, the church in America isless a challenge and more a potential model, as is the growing role ofreligion in American society.
"From the dawn of the republic," the pope said recently, "America hasbeen . . . a nation which values the role of religious belief inensuring a vibrant and ethically sound democratic order."
Benedict, who arrives in Washington on Tuesday, hopes to use hissix-day visit, which will include meetings with Catholic seminarians,educators and clergy, as well as two enormous open-air Masses, tostress the importance of God in daily life. He is also expected totouch on more sensitive topics such as war, abortion and human rights.
Benedict will also be on a mission to heal still-festering wounds:This is the first visit by a pope to the U.S. since pedophilia casesinvolving hundreds of priests came to light in 2002. And he willencounter a church that has undergone dramatic demographic change inthe last decade, its parish pews filled thanks in large part toHispanics and Hispanic immigrants, as is especially evident in SouthernCalifornia.
"He will not be afraid to confront the challenges that confront usall," Father David M. O'Connell, president of Catholic University ofAmerica, said in an interview. But, O'Connell added, "his message willbe one that is very positive and encouraging, that focuses on thefuture, not simply examines the past. . . . The goal will be to lift uphope for American Catholics."
"He's not coming here to shake his fist at us," said Father ThomasReese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center atGeorgetown University.
In recent comments to the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Mary AnnGlendon, the pope was full of praise for "the American people'shistoric appreciation of the role of religion in shaping publicdiscourse and in shedding light on the inherent moral dimension ofsocial issues."
Benedict rejoices in the presence of religious belief in U.S. publicpolicy, in a government that isn't reluctant to use the words "in Godwe trust" -- something that is not allowed in much of stringentlysecular Europe. Condemning secularism and advocating a return toChristianity's core values have been the central themes of theGerman-born theologian's 3-year-old pontificate. The increasinglyreligious nature of some segments of American society should make foran especially receptive audience for the pope.
"This is a pope who is very concerned about the loss of faith inEurope . . . but the U.S. is in a very different situation," saidFather Thomas Rausch, a theologian at Loyola Marymount University inLos Angeles. "All kinds of Christianity -- Catholic, Protestant andOrthodox -- are much more alive and vital than in Europe."
The church in America is highly diverse, spanning the gamut ofpolitical opinions and socioeconomic situations. And it has adetermined independent streak, with some followers' bending of therules putting them at odds with the Vatican. Some U.S. practices, suchas women serving as hospital chaplains and the liberal use of altargirls, might be frowned upon in Rome. But that same independence alsogives vitality to the American church.
Benedict and the Vatican are "obviously impressed with theengagement of American laity in the life of the church, in liturgy andsocial action," Cardinal James Stafford, one of five Rome-based seniorAmerican prelates who will accompany Benedict, said in an interview.
He acknowledged, however, that surveys showing some Americansabandoning the church were "sobering" and constituted "a call forenormous self-criticism."
"Parish life is still vibrant. Wounded, but vibrant," Stafford said. "So there is hope."
A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reportedthat although nearly one in three Americans was raised in the Catholicfaith, today fewer than one in four describes himself as Catholic. Butbecause of converts and immigration, the overall percentage of the U.S.population that identifies itself as Catholic has remained stable.
Hispanics, born in the U.S. or elsewhere, now account for nearly athird of American Catholic adults, the Pew survey said. And theHispanic share of the church is likely to grow; according to the study,nearly half of American Catholics under the age of 40 are Hispanic.
The rising numbers of Hispanic faithful, especially in the boomingdioceses of the Southwest, present opportunities and challenges to theCatholic Church, especially with many parts of the U.S. suffering ashortage of priests.
"The church in the United States is undergoing a new wave ofmulticulturalism," said Father Pedro Barrajon, rector of Rome's ReginaApostolorum Pontifical University. Hispanics are joining generations ofItalian, Polish and Irish Catholics, "bringing with them their ownproblems of poverty, integration and need for education," he said.Hispanic Catholics also tend to be more traditional in their religiousbeliefs than Anglo Catholics, surveys show.
Although Benedict's schedule
does not focus on Hispanics or immigrants, he has recognized theHispanic presence in the American church by choosing to deliver part ofhis opening message and other speeches in Spanish. He will probablyspeak about immigration, and he also recently named a new cardinal,Daniel DiNardo of Houston, who represents an archdiocese with a largenumber of Hispanics.