Pope Benedict XVI asked the faithful yesterday to pray for the success of histrip to the United States, which begins tomorrow and will expose the shy andscholarly German-born pontiff to the glare of the global spotlight as neverbefore in his three-year reign.
Vatican officials said that the Pope would not interfere in the USpresidential election by meeting any of the candidates.
Speaking in English to pilgrims on St Peter’s Square, the pontiff said thathis intention was to “share our Lord’s word of life” on his five-day trip,during which he will address the United Nations on human rights, meetPresident Bush and pray at Ground Zero in New York, described by the Vaticanas the “emotional highpoint”.
Yesterday he declared, to applause from American priests on the square wavingthe Stars and Stripes: “Dear brothers and sisters, I ask you all to pray forthe success of my visit, so that it may be a time of spiritual renewal forall Americans.”
The Pope does not have the charisma or showmanship of John Paul II, hispredecessor, and has not travelled as widely. The US trip is only hisseventh journey overseas since his election three years ago. One recentsurvey said that three of ten Americans did not know enough about BenedictXVI to offer an opinion.
However, he has developed a warmer rapport with audiences and the Vatican hasbeen at pains to project a softer, more gentle image of a man who, aslong-serving enforcer of doctrine under John Paul II, was seen as a rigidarch conservative.
John Allen, an American expert on the Vatican, said that the Pope hadmistakenly been seen as “a kind of Darth Vader of the Church” and would seekto present “a positive vision of what the Catholic Church represents ratherthan what it is against”.
The pontiff’s relative inexperience on the world stage has led to slips,causing tensions with other faiths, and his performance will be watchedclosely by Muslims, Jews and Protestants. He is expected to pray for theredemption of Islamic terrorists “consumed by hate” when he visits GroundZero on the last day of his trip, asking God to “put them on the path oflove” instead.
Vatican sources said that this was not a call for the conversion of Islamicextremists to Christianity. The Pope has moved to strengthen dialogue withMuslims since the furore caused by his apparent description of Islam in aspeech in Germany two years ago as inherently violent and inhumane.
The Vatican has also sought to reassure the Muslim world that the Pope’sbaptism of a Muslim convert in St Peter’s at Easter was not part of “a newCrusade” against Islam. While in America the Pope will meet Muslims, Jews,Buddhists and Hindus as well as visit a New York synagogue to mark theJewish Passover.
In a rare gesture, President Bush will meet the Pope at Andrews Air ForceBase, with a crowd of 12,000 expected at the White House on Wednesdaymorning for the arrival ceremony. Explaining the elaborate welcome, Mr Bushsaid: “One, he speaks for millions. Two, he doesn’t come as a politician; hecomes as a man of faith.” He said that he wanted to honour the Pope’sconviction that “there’s right and wrong in life, that moral relativism hasa danger of undermining the capacity to have more hopeful and freesocieties”.
The Pope will also tackle the problem of falling numbers of priests, a crisiscaused partly by the clergy sex-abuse scandal. More than 3,000 US RomanCatholic churches have no resident priest, and although the number ofAmerican Catholics has risen to 64 million, this is largely thanks to Latinoor Hispanic Catholics, who make up a third of the total.
— To the dismay of the Vatican, the Pope’s trip has spawned a large range ofkitsch memorabilia including a bobblehead doll. Official merchandiseincludes baseball hats, mugs, bumper stickers and keyrings and postcards.Unofficial items, however, range from an “I Love my German Shepherd” T-shirtto a “Pope on a Rope” soap, “The Pope’s Cologne” and a teddy bear shirt withthe Pope’s face on it. The Washington Archdiocese has asked for anadvertisement that uses the bobblehead doll to persuade people to take thesubway to the Mass at Nationals Park to be scrapped.