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US Visit of Pope Benedict to Begin Tuesday


Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United States Tuesday for a six-day visit - his first trip to this country since being elected head of the Roman Catholic Church almost three years ago. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera previews the pontiff's visit.

President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush will greet Pope Benedict after his arrival Tuesday at Andrews Air Force base. The official welcoming ceremony will be held Wednesday at the White House, followed by a private meeting between the pontiff and the U.S. president.

During his six-day visit, Pope Benedict is also scheduled to celebrate open air masses in Washington D.C. and New York, address leaders of Catholic colleges, meet with representatives from other religions and pray at "Ground Zero" - the site of the New York World Trade Center towers destroyed on September 11, 2001.

But many experts, such as Father Thomas Reese from Georgetown University, say the high point of the pontiff's visit will be his address to the United Nations on Friday.

"His message is going to be that international relations should not just be governed by power and money - military power and money - but should be guided by ethical principles, by moral values," said Father Reese. " He is going to talk about the importance of working for justice and peace. I think he will repeat what [Pope] John Paul [the Second] said that there is no peace without justice and no justice without reconciliation. This is what he world needs on the international level - peace, justice and reconciliation - and that is going to be a strong message from him."

Many experts say the visit will give the American public - including the estimated 67 million Roman Catholics - a chance to get-acquainted with the pontiff. John Allen wrote a biography of Pope Benedict.

"This pope does not have the same kind of high media profile that [Pope] John Paul II did - which means that if you are not a Catholic insider, you do not know very much about this pope, at least in the United States," said John Allen. "And so in that sense, I think he is coming in a way to introduce himself to the American public."

Before being elected pope and taking the name of Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was for almost 25 years the man responsible for preserving Catholic orthodoxy. He was seen as a hard-liner, an enforcer of church doctrine.

But the President of Assumption College in Masachusetts, Francesco Cesareo, who has met the pope, says his private demeanor is quite different from his portrayal in the media.

"He is a very - first of all - very humble man," said Francesco Cesareo. "For someone who has the kind of intellectual prowess and ability that he has and his theological training and for someone who has been in very high positions - when you meet him, he is very, very humble. But he is also very warm and a very friendly individual. It is a side of him that, unfortunately, has not been portrayed that way in terms of his persona. But he is a very, very gentle, warm and compassionate individual."

During his visit here, Pope Benedict is also expected to touch on controversial issues facing the Catholic Church: abortion, contraception and how to address the decline in the number of priests - a decline some experts have described as critical.

Father Thomas Reese from Georgetown University says the pontiff might also talk about the massive scandal that erupted several years ago involving the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.

"As a cardinal, he was in charge of the office that processed priests out of the church, that threw priests out of the priesthood who were involved in the sex abuse," he said. "He has seen the files. He knows how terrible this was for the children who were abused and how disastrous it was for the church. So I would not be surprised at all if he said how sorry he was that these children were hurt and we have to reach out in healing to them. And I think he will encourage and compliment the bishops for what they have been doing to make churches a safer place."

While he is in the United States, Pope Benedict will mark two personal milestones: Wednesday, April 16 will be his 81st birthday and Saturday, April 19 will be the third anniversary of his election as pontiff.

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