In case you've missed the countless news articles, blog posts andtelevision segments, the leader of 1.13 billion Catholics is coming toAmerica.
When Pope Benedict XVI makes his first trip to the United StatesApril 15-20, with stops in Washington and New York, he will claim onein four Americans as his own. The trip will also be a chance to raisehis own profile — 81 percent of Americans said they don't know much oranything about him, according to a recent Marist College poll.
Yet 42 percent of Americans polls said they would like to attend oneof Benedict's public appearances, which suggests interest well beyondhis own Catholic flock.
So why does the pope matter? Here's a look:
•Vicar of Christ
The pope is not just any religious leader. For 17 percent of theworld's population, he is Christ's chosen representative on earth. Asthe sole successor of Peter, the apostle to whom Jesus entrusted thekeys of his church and care of his flock, the pope has full power andprimacy over the Catholic Church.
While each bishop oversees his particular diocese, only the pope, assupreme pontiff and bishop of Rome, exercises moral, doctrinal andjurisdictional authority over all the faithful.
Put another way, no other faith invests so much power in the hands of one man.
"He's in a position of being in the chair of Peter, which is a veryprivileged place. But it's also a place of a pastoral relationship. Weare taught this is a place you look to for leadership," said DawnNothwehr, chair of historical and doctrinal studies at CatholicTheological Union in Chicago.
Six years after the clergy sex abuse crisis erupted, the Americanchurch is still reeling from the aftershocks. Five dioceses havedeclared bankruptcy, priestly and religious vocations remain low, and arecent Pew Forum report revealed that one-third of so-called "cradleCatholics" no longer identify as Catholics. Immigration has helpedoffset the attrition, creating its own set of issues as the churchadapts to the changing face of the faithful.
Benedict, however, will likely focus on the faith's fundamentals, ashe has done throughout the three years of his papacy, highlightingAmerica's vibrant religious tradition and urging Catholics to retaintheir identity in the public square.
Benedict's trip — plus six days of nonstop media attention — could provide a needed shot in the arm.
"It's not just the sex abuse crisis. There's a real sense the(American) church needs new vitality, said Timothy Matovina, directorof the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at theUniversity of Notre Dame.
"If the church is not strong and solid in its own membership andlinks to its own people, then all the other goals of influencingsociety, of being leaven in the world, will not be met."
•Global moral authority
The pope's position as arguably the most visible religious leader inthe world affords him a prime pulpit from which to champion peace andjustice. Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, is widely creditedwith helping to bring about the end of communism, and his unprecedentedglobetrotting brought the church's social justice mission to millionsaround the world.
Since his election three years ago, Benedict has spoken out on the"continual slaughter" in Iraq; the "catastrophic" situation in Darfur;the imperative of protecting the environment; and the "scandal" ofpoverty. It's no coincidence his first encyclical was on love, withoutwhich, he argues, there can be no peace.
While the pope obviously speaks in Christian terms, not everyone who listens to his message need be Christian.
"He does have a spiritual dimension to all of his speeches andwriting," said Nothwehr. "People are more inclined these days tounderstand a journey of spirituality than any one religious belief. Ifhe can be heard at that level as well, it would be a very opportunemoment for him."
In 2006, the pope's lecture in Regensburg, Germany, caused a majorkerfuffle among Muslims when he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperorwho said that Islam's Prophet Muhammad brought "things only evil andinhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith hepreached."
Whether he wanted it or not, the speech — and the ensuingcontroversy — have made the pope Christendom's pointman in what isshaping up to be the defining issue of the 21st century: Western-Muslimrelations.
The tensions, haven't dampened Benedict's voice, or actions. At theEaster Vigil in St. Peter's Basilica last month, the pope personallybaptized Magdi Allam, an outspoken critic of both Muslim extremism andIslam itself, and welcomed him into the Catholic Church. The verypublic conversion did not go unnoticed by both Muslims and Catholicsinvolved in dialogue.
Signs of renewed communication, however, have cropped up among thesetbacks. Benedict prayed silently at Istanbul's Blue Mosque during atrip to Turkey not long after the Regensburg uproar, and he isscheduled to meet in November with the Muslim scholars who initiated aChristian-Muslim dialogue last year. His U.S. visit includes a meetingwith about 200 leaders of other faiths in Washington.
"The important thing is that the dialogue and relations are movingforward," said John Esposito, director of the Center forMuslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. "But it wouldbe an exaggeration not to say there haven't been some significanthiccups along the way."