The leader of the world's largest Christian church, Pope Benedict, is making his first official visit to the United States next week (April 15-20). Thousands of American Catholics are expected to travel to New York and Washington, D.C. where the pope is scheduled to visit President Bush, celebrate Mass in two large stadiums, and meet with representatives of the world's major religions. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details in this preview of the pope's trip to America.
Preparations for Pope Benedict's visit have been underway for weeks at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, the largest Catholic Church in North America.
There are an estimated 67 million Catholics in the United States, about 22 percent of the nation's population.
The pope will find an increasingly diverse flock when he arrives. Nearly 30 percent of American Catholics are Hispanic and that number is rapidly growing.
U.S. Catholics also have a huge variety of attitudes and religious beliefs, including some that stray from Catholic doctrine.
Still that has apparently not reduced interest in the papal visit here at the Catholic University of America, where thousands of students are lining up to pick up tickets to watch the pope on a giant television screen.
"The mood is one of excitement and anticipation," said James Brennan, the university's provost. "I think, among the students, it has been growing all semester. There is quite a buzz on campus."
Before Benedict was elected pope three years ago, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was known by some inside the church as God's Rottweiler, because of his years as the Vatican's chief enforcer of church doctrine.
Since then, analysts say, his image has softened, especially after he wrote major encyclicals, or letters to the faithful, emphasizing Christian hope and love.
"There is no finger wagging in this man's encyclicals," explained Monsignor Kevin Irwin, the dean of the School of Theology at Catholic University. "They are very encouraging. God is love. You cannot get more foundational than that. But God's love requires that we respond in loving response to others - the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed."
Benedict is described by people who know him as a man with a keen intellect who shies away from the dramatic gestures that gave his predecessor, Pope John Paul, rock star status.
"You had with John Paul II a magnanimous actor," added Monsignor Irwin. "With Benedict you have got a quiet, reserved academic."
Students here at Catholic University say they are excited to have the pope visit their campus where he will speak to bishops, address Catholic educators and meet with leaders of other faiths.
"This younger generation of Catholics is embracing his message," said Susan Baumert, a graduate student studying church history. "We are thankful for the stand he is taken on many issues and he is doing a good job."
The pope's first public event in Washington will be an official arrival ceremony hosted by President and Mrs. Bush at the White House.
While the pope and Mr. Bush share many similar Christian values, one area of sharp disagreement is the war in Iraq.
"Before he was pope he made statements pretty clearly suggesting this was not a just war," noted Helen Alvare, an associate professor of law at Catholic University. "Since that time his statements have focused upon agony over the bloodshed. Palm Sunday he just burst out with the statement - no more violence, no more bloodshed. Let's just end it."
This will be the first visit by a pope to the United States since a massive scandal erupted involving the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.
The church has paid an estimated $1.5 billion in settlements to victims of abuse.
Helen Alvare, who chaired a commission investigating clerical abuse, says the pope needs to discuss the scandal during his visit.
"As a Catholic, as someone who worked on this and as a mother I think he really ought to address it," she said. "You can not say too much about the losses that those children and families felt."
Catholic officials say the German-born pope, who will turn 81 during his visit to Washington, is also expected to address other controversial issues such as abortion, contraception, and ordaining married men or women to the priesthood.
Pope Benedict will celebrate Mass at two baseball stadiums and while in New York will address the United Nations, visit a synagogue, and offer prayers at the site of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
"He is a very strong person," Catholic University Provost James Brennan added "He is a very learned person and I think he has a lot to say. I believe that all Catholics will have much to learn, but I hope all Americans will listen to him as well."
The timing of Pope Benedict's visit is designed to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the oldest dioceses in the United States, including New York, Boston and Philadelphia.