April 14, 2008
Pope Benedict: Relative unknown.
POPE Benedict XVI, who has praised the United States for itsreligious freedom but regretted its increasing secularisation,arrives this week for a six-day, two-city visit in which he willintroduce himself to a nation still largely unsure what to make ofhim.
The fact of his visit shows the importance of the Americanchurch to the Vatican. At 80, Benedict travels infrequently; thisis only his eighth foreign trip in three years as Pope.
He will discuss public policy at the White House and the UnitedNations, will preach the Gospel at Yankee Stadium and NationalsPark, will roll through the streets of Washington and New York inhis bulletproof Mercedes-Benz "Popemobile", and will pray at GroundZero.
But mostly he will offer Americans a chance to take the measureof this spiritual leader, who despite three years in office remainsa relative unknown.
Those who follow him closely, eager to find quirks of humanityin this stern-seeming man, have fixed on a handful of colourfuldetails — such as his fondness for cats and his skill at thepiano.
He is dogged by his reputation as a doctrinaire hatchet man forJohn Paul II, but is described by those closest to him as abrilliant theologian seeking to inspire, not chastise, his largebut troubled flock.
America's 67 million Catholics are the nation's largestreligious denomination but are hemorrhaging members and make upjust 6% of the world church. The church is also reeling from theeffects of the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
Still, culturally and financially, Americans loom super-sized.For those reasons and others, Benedict experts say he views the USas an essential battleground in what he considers the war oftoday's era: proving that modernity does not have to stamp outreligious faith.
BOSTON GLOBE, WASHINGTON POST