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The Pope and his addressing the issue of clergy and sexual abuse by priests.

Pope's Visit Stirs Strong Emotions In Faithful


Published: April 13, 2008

Updated: 04/13/2008 12:12 am

TAMPA- He stood among thousands of other Catholic faithful in St. Peter'sSquare, a pilgrim from South Pasadena who came to Rome to witness ahistoric moment.

And when it was announced that Cardinal Ratzinger would be the nextpope, Michael Brennan was overcome with joy. This was just the man hewanted to succeed the late Pope John Paul II.

"I'm one of his biggest fans," says Brennan, recalling that day,April 19, 2005, when Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. "He's veryCatholic, a learned scholar with backbone and who can take criticism.He's the one who can get us back on course."

On Tuesday, the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics willmake his first official trip to the United States, a six-day journey toNew York and Washington that includes a meeting with President Bush, anaddress before the United Nations, a visit to ground zero and agathering with leaders of some non-Christian faiths. He'll alsocelebrate two occasions: his 81st birthday on Wednesday and his thirdanniversary as pope on Saturday.

And once again, Brennan, 64, will be part of history. He and twosiblings will be at the April 20 Mass at Yankee Stadium, where theretired nurse once hawked hot dogs and sodas at baseball games. Morethan 200,000 people applied for the 100,000 free tickets to the service.

"I know I will never get another opportunity like this again," hesays. "To be back in my old neighborhood, with my brother and sister,celebrating the Mass with the vicar of Christ. It's a blessing I couldnever imagine."

Not all share Brennan's enthusiasm for the German pope, once dubbed"God's Rottweiler" for his ultraconservative stands. Before he emergedas the oldest pope elected in three centuries, he headed the Vatican'sCongregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 24 years. Scholarly andreserved, he does not have the effusive and crowd-loving personality ofhis popular predecessor, John Paul II.

Crisis Of Confidence

Benedict comes to the United States at a time when some of thenation's estimated 65 million Catholics are in a crisis of confidenceover their faith.

They disagree about institutional policies and theological doctrine,from the bishops' handling of the clergy sexual abuse scandal toBenedict's reiteration of a 2000 document maintaining that only theCatholic Church offers salvation both through Jesus and the Catholicsacraments.

Vocations are lagging, forcing some parishes to share priests;women's groups are calling for more inclusive practices and preachingopportunities for qualified women; and six dioceses have filed forbankruptcy, largely because of more than $2 billion in settlements andlegal fees involving disgraced priests and brothers.

As many as 100,000 U.S. baptized Catholics drift away from thechurch every year, and only 33 percent attend Mass weekly, according toCatholics Come Home, a nonprofit agency aimed at lapsed members. Thepope can't be blamed for those numbers, but some of his actionsnaturally cause dissention.

He brought back increased access to the Latin Mass, a move thatthrilled traditionalists such as Brennan but caused alarm among others.Critics called it a throwback to the pre-Vatican II days when there wasless participation and understanding of the Mass among the laity.

When Benedict banned men with "deeply rooted" homosexual tendenciesfrom admission to seminaries, some groups called it an affront to allgay people.

Those who expect the pope to make sweeping statements or take astand during his U.S. trip will be sorely disappointed, says one of hisbiographers.

"There are issues, serious issues, facing the church, but he's notgoing to address them," says David Gibson, author of "The Rule ofBenedict" (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006). "To him, it's a matter ofencouraging people to be better Catholics, and all those issues willtake care of themselves."

Gibson is tracking the visit in "Benedictions," a daily blog on beliefnet.com. He predicts the pope's influence this week will be of a spiritual nature, rather than political.

"Catholics take great pride in their pope. He's a symbol of unityand a figure of international stature," Gibson says. "We may disagreeamong ourselves, but he is our pope. And right now, Catholics need ashot in the arm."

A recent survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life delivered some disturbing news for the church.

Of all the religious denominations in the United States, Catholicismhas experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliationchanges. Although about 33 percent of Americans were raised Catholic,about 25 percent now describe themselves as Catholic.

Those losses would have been even more pronounced had it not beenfor the offsetting impact of immigration, Pew researchers say.Foreign-born American Catholics bring the numbers to nearly double thatof Protestants (46 percent versus 24 percent).

'My Faith Is Everything'

Leila Souza of Town 'N Country is among the immigrant faithful. Bornin Brazil, the lifelong Catholic moved here about 25 years ago. Shekeeps an altar in her house and visits sites around the world whereapparitions of the Virgin Mary are reported. This week, she's headingto New York with her sons, ages 14 and 22, and her 72-year-old motherto attend the Mass.

She was the first person to request the free tickets from theDiocese of St. Petersburg, she says. She prayed fervently and says shewas rewarded when she got the call the tickets were in the mail.

"My faith is everything. Without it, you have nothing," says Souza,a private home caregiver. Her oldest son is a rapper and doesn't shareher spiritual enthusiasm. She's hoping seeing a pope and being amongon-fire Catholics will be a transforming experience for him.

"I know how important it is to pass on the faith to your children. I want my sons to know the same truths I know," she says.

But some of the truths are harsh realities that need to be addressedand corrected by church hierarchy, say spokesmen for advocacy anddissident groups.

David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priestssays the sex abuse guidelines enacted a few years ago by U.S. bishopsmay be "vague, weak and usually not enforced," but they're better thanwhat's in place in the rest of the Catholic world - nothing.

"That's the world this pope is living in and dealing with," Clohessysays. "Leaders act like everything is normal, figuring if they act likethat long enough, it will become that way. They say the right things -'we feel bad for the victims, and the predators are bad guys' - and itdoes nothing but lull Catholics into complacency. But the problemdoesn't go away."

His grade on Benedict's handling of the clergy abuse crisis: D."That's for all the words and gestures that are meaningless, and noaction of substance."

Equally disillusioned are members of Voice of the Faithful, aCatholic lay group that claims more than 35,000 members. The groupbought a full-page ad in Tuesday's New York Times with a message to thepope and a statement urging Catholics to "transform our church."

The group is circulating a petition through its Web site because thepope's schedule did not include any discussions or listening sessionswith ordinary laity, says president Dan Bartley. Among its requests:Treat survivors of sexual abuse with justice and compassion; holdbishops accountable; embrace full participation of Catholic men andwomen in church decision-making; and require financial transparency andaccountability in all governance matters.

In just a few days, the petition had more than 3,300 signatures.

"Secrecy and cover-up is the norm with the church. That's why we'rein a crisis," Bartley says. "We're not willing to give up and walkaway, although many of us have stood at the crossroads and come close.This movement is focusing on solutions, transformation andimprovements."

Regrettably, Bartley says, Benedict has not shown the kind ofleadership the group believes is necessary to make those changes. Hesays he has been disappointed, but not surprised, by the church'sbusiness-as-usual attitude.

"When these bishops make pronouncements on moral issues, it'sembarrassing," Bartley says. Of all the bishops involved in the clergysex scandal, only one, Cardinal Law, resigned. He later got a Vaticanappointment to preside over a basilica in Rome.

"Catholics don't like to talk about it, but it's hard to listen when we haven't cleaned our own house," he says.

Optimism Among The Faithful

Feeling more optimistic about changes at the pew level is MarianneDuddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a lay organization oflesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics. Her group, which alsofailed to get an audience with Benedict, will sponsor a series ofevents and peaceful demonstrations near papal appearances.

Although the pope and some bishops are becoming "increasingly morerestrictive" in their attitudes about gay people, Duddy-Burke sayssupport among the faithful is at a high. Dignity now has chapters onmore than 40 Catholic college campuses and members in every state.

"The church does not speak with a single voice on gay-relatedissues," she says. "This pope certainly uses more antigay rhetoric thanJohn Paul II, but what matters is that the people are standing up anddoing their own thinking."

The Rev. David O'Connell, president of Catholic University ofAmerica, where Benedict will speak Thursday, served on the papal tripcommittee. He hopes the pope - who comes from Europe, where religiousobservance is on a downslide - will see that faith is alive andthriving here.

"We've had troubles and sufferings within the church, yes. But ourfaith is still hopeful, and we're still able to celebrate the centralmystery of our life: that Jesus loves us and wants us to be one withhim," O'Connell says.

As for the public's reception, O'Connell predicts the pope will bewelcomed and embraced. "The fear that he would be an overly toughenforcer simply hasn't materialized," he says. "He's demonstrated a lotof love and affection for the people, and it's been a happy surprise."

Sandra Flake of Plant City will be among the greeters. She and herson, a 35-year-old lawyer from New York, plan to attend the YankeeStadium Mass. Born a Catholic, she left her roots for 17 years,church-shopping among several Christian denominations. Since comingback 18 years ago, she lives her Catholicism "24-7, every minute of mylife."

"God found me and brought me back," Flake says. "My mission is to evangelize to people who've lost their way. I am his servant."

She calls Benedict "a brilliant, great leader, the perfect one tosucceed Pope John Paul II." Even though she's legally blind, she saysshe expects to feel the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of aholy man.

"There's a beauty and history in this faith that you can't find anywhere else," she says. "I'm so happy to be home."

Reporter Michelle Bearden can be reached at (813) 259-7613 or mbearden@tampatrib.com.

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