It is an appropriate theme in this Easterseason when all Christians rejoice in Jesus' triumph over death and thehope that this inspires for all men and women of faith. Withoutquestion, many of his homilies will touch on this theme that is socentral to his pontificate.
But the pope will need to do morethan just reach out to the American Catholic Church, which, for thelast 30 years, has lived through the worst chapter in its history. Theanti-Catholic riots and church burnings of the 19th century were prettybad, but they strengthened the resolve of the Catholic people. Today,optimism has been shattered and commitment weakened by the closing ofchurches and schools, the shortage of priests and the sex-abuse scandalthat cost the church more than $2.3 billion and scarred thousands oflives. As many as one-third of adult American Catholics have left thechurch in recent years.
Appropriately, the pope has scheduledsome pep talks: for his bishops, following a service at the NationalShrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday,and for young men studying for the priesthood at St. Joseph's Seminaryin Yonkers on Saturday.
Like his predecessors Paul VI and John Paul II, Benedict XVI will address the United Nations,where he will preach a gospel of hope to a world desperately in need ofhope. His more challenging task, in terms of world affairs, occurs onWednesday (which is also his 81st birthday) when the pope visits the White House.Will this be purely ceremonial or will he - as a true apostle of peaceand justice in the world - reassert his strong opposition to the Bushwar in Iraq?
Another delicate issue on the itinerary is thefuture of the Catholic university. This pope, one of the mostaccomplished intellectuals ever to occupy the chair of Peter, will feelat home meeting at the Catholic University of America with leaders ofthese schools. He will urge them to maintain the Catholic character oftheir universities - a difficult challenge at a time when the model ofthe modern university has little room for religion.
In recentyears the Vatican has sought to gain control over the type of theologytaught in Catholic schools. Such censorship violates the spirit ofacademic freedom, the keystone of every university. How the popenegotiates this delicate issue will test his diplomatic skills.
At the same time, the number of Catholic faculty has declined. Onlyabout half of the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, long an iconof Catholic higher education, is Catholic. How do Notre Dame and otherCatholic universities remain first-rate institutions of highereducation and maintain their Catholic ethos when most of the faculty isnot Catholic? It's not clear that the pope can resolve this.
A talk to clergy gathered at St. Patrick's Cathedral for a Mass onSaturday will give the pope an opportunity (should he take it) toaddress the victims of the sex abuse scandals and acknowledge the greatharm this has done to them and their families. When he talks to theseminarians in Yonkers, the pope will urge them to persevere in theirvocation since the church in the United States desperately needs notjust more priests, but priests the people can point to with pride.
So much for the topics he is scheduled to address. What about some of the other issues that concern many American Catholics?
First on this list would be the role of the laity in thedecision-making that impacts the life of their parishes. To continue torefuse to have the laity involved in such decision-making will onlyhasten the exodus of talented but frustrated young men and women.Another concern is financial accountability. Every Sunday, churchescollect thousands of dollars, but where does this money end up? Suchlack of accountability has led to huge embezzlements in numerousdioceses. Then, there are the topics of a married clergy and openingthe priesthood to women.
To continue to refuse to considerthese topics honestly and openly ignores the challenges facing priestlyministry in the 21st century. In failing to address such issues, thepope is telling Catholics that the future of the church will not bemuch different than the past. That is scarcely a message of hope.
The pope's celebration of Mass in baseball stadiums in Washington andNew York will attract thousands of people who will cheer and applaudhis coming and going. He will have expressed his affection to theAmerican branch of the universal church which, with more than 60million members, is a major financial supporter of the Vatican.
But when he boards the plane to travel back to Rome, life will return to normal for Catholics. The multiple visits of Pope John Paul IIto the United States - at which most of the leading issues for the newcentury were never addressed - did little to halt the decline of theinstitutional church over the course of the past 30 years. Benedict'svisit will lift the spirit of Catholics, but it is unlikely, given theselectivity of his agenda, to resolve any of the tough challenges itfaces in the next 30 years. Christ still remains the hope of Catholics,not Pope Benedict.