When Shepherd One lands outside Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, thejet carrying Pope Benedict XVI to a six-day visit in the United Stateswill deliver a complex and surprising man.
His image is cast in a stern adherence to orthodoxy. He has beentrue to that, but his first three years as leader of the Roman CatholicChurch also suggest he is not exactly the harsh disciplinarian somefans had hoped for - or many critics had feared.
One thing hasn'tbeen a surprise: Benedict, shy and scholarly, has not shown the publicrelations acumen of his predecessor, John Paul II, who radiated suchcharisma that not everyone saw his steely inflexibility on theology andtraditions.
John Paul, pope for 26 years, outlived the Nazis whooverran his native Poland, survived an assassination attempt, and stoodup to Soviet communism and Cuba's Fidel Castro. An actor in his youthand just 58 when elected pope, John Paul was a master of grand gestures.
Benedictis decidedly not. That's partly why his first visit to America as popeis a challenge to the Bavarian theologian, whose deeply researchedacademic speeches haven't always played well in a sound-bite world. Onequote, yanked out of context in a speech in his native Germany inSeptember 2006, set off violent protests among Muslims worldwide.
He sometimes seems culturally "tone-deaf," as if he were still speaking just to the Vatican hierarchy as Cardinal Joseph
Ratzinger,says National Catholic Reporter columnist John Allen, whose first bookon Ratzinger was subtitled "The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith."Benedict was head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of theFaith for 24 years.
His visit here could help erase that harsh image - or cement it.
Benedict and John Paul
Benedict, the oldest pope elected in three centuries, will turn 81on April 16 during his U.S. visit. He arrives as Catholics face emptychurches and lost clout in Europe, the American church tries to recoverfrom a clergy sex abuse scandal and Islam has overtaken Catholicism asthe world's largest religion.
He has made clear he wants tocontinue the strict doctrines of John Paul, who muzzled theologians hethought blurred the lines between Catholicism and politics, opposed theuse of condoms to fight AIDS, refused to reconsider the tradition ofpriestly celibacy and dismissed out of hand the notion that women beallowed to become priests.
Benedict's admirers hope people will come to see him as they do: kind, warm, intellectually open and engaging.
"Thepope I have seen for the past three years is the Joseph Ratzinger Ihave known for 20 - a holy and brilliant priest who knows who he is, amaster teacher with remarkable skill in explaining complex Christiandoctrines and a quite winsome public personality," says George Weigel,a theologian and author on Catholic issues.
Benedict's visit istimed to a speech at the United Nations and to mark the 200thanniversary of Baltimore becoming an archdiocese and the creation ofthe dioceses of New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Bardstown, Ky.
Onthe trip, he will address the nation's 67 million Catholics and theworld, but he will stop only in Washington, D.C., and New York.
Notablyomitted: Boston, the epicenter of the nationwide clergy sexual abusescandal, in which 5,000 clergy members have been accused of abusing12,000 children and teens.
The scandal has cost nearly $2 billionin settlements and legal fees and driven five dioceses into bankruptcy.Papal ambassador Pietro Sambi says Benedict will address the scandal"more than once."
'We will see Peter'
The pope will meet with President Bush at the White House, pray atthe World Trade Center site and celebrate Mass in Washington's newNationals Park and New York's Yankee Stadium.
"When he steps offthe plane, we will see Peter," the apostle whom Jesus told to "build mychurch, feed my sheep," says Archbishop of Washington Donald Wuerl."He's coming to inspire, to affirm and to teach. He's not coming toscold us."
To the laity and clergy, Benedict will promoteauthentic Catholic identity: more than going to Mass, it isunderstanding and fully living by Catholic values. To politicians andreligious leaders, he'll emphasize the common ground in natural morallaw that rests in reason.
And to all, he'll denounce "moralrelativism," which "does not recognize anything as definitive and whoseultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires."