After appearances at two East Coast venues usually reserved for major league athletes or rock stars, Pope Benedict XVI will leave New York a week from Sunday, three years and a day after he was named pontiff following the death of his much-beloved predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
Americans who pay even passing attention to news in any form next week will have a new mental picture of the best-known figure in Christendom, either waving at the faithful packed into Nationals or Yankee stadiums, visiting ground zero in New York, or riding in his Popemobile past the White House, if all goes as scheduled.
While in the United States, the pope will not only speak to thousands of Catholics, but will meet with a variety of religious leaders, including two LDS apostles.
Elders M. Russell Ballard and Quentin L. Cook have been assigned by the church's First Presidency to attend an interfaith meeting in New York, according to Scott Trotter, a church spokesman.
"There are no expectations of a private meeting with the pope. There will be many Catholic clergy there," Trotter told the Deseret Morning News on Friday.
After three years as head of the worldwide Catholic Church, much of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked American Catholicism to its core in recent years has worked its way through the legal system, giving the pontiff a chance to address a U.S. flock that many in Rome have long seen as too liberal for too long on a variety of issues, many of them involving sex.
The abuse scandal that broke in 2002 not only cast a spotlight on widespread criminal behavior between priests and children that had gone on for decades, but also reignited discussion about the celibacy requirement for Catholic clergy. Several seminaries examined their unspoken policies on allowing gay men to move into ministry, and diocesan directives about reporting allegations of sexual abuse were instituted nationwide.
The pope, seen by American scholars from the outset as a "hard-liner" when it comes to maintaining the purity of Catholic faith and doctrine, is expected to address the scandal and its aftermath during his visit. The church has paid out more than $2 billion in legal settlements the past five years to abuse victims and their attorneys.
Those who differ with the pope's firm stands on moral and social issues are using his visit as a springboard for discussion on the specifics of Catholic doctrine that they say are outmoded and should be left behind.
For example, four Catholic theologians will hold a conference call with journalists next week to launch their new publication, "Truth and Consequence: A Look Behind the Vatican's Ban on Contraception." The ban was outlined 40 years ago in a Vatican document known as "Humanae Vitae," and according to the scholars, is "widely acknowledged as a defining moment in modern church history," creating "a source of great conflict and division in the church.
"Today, the vast majority of Catholics in the U.S. and elsewhere routinely ignore the ban on contraception, leading some to question their faith," the press release said. The scholars represent self-identified "progressive Catholic" organizations, including Catholics for Choice and the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual.
Other organizations that question the church's stand on a variety of doctrinal points include the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, which seeks to secure "shared decisionmaking" in church administration at all levels; Call to Action, which urges "equality and justice in the church and society;" DignityUSA and New Ways Ministry, which both advocate for homosexual, bisexual and transgender Catholics; and Critical Mass: Women Celebrating Eucharist, Roman Catholic Womenpriests and the Women's Ordination Conference, all of which support women who want to officiate in Catholic rites even though the church prohibits them holding the priesthood.
Nearly 25 percent of U.S. adults are Catholic, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But despite their church's strict opposition to abortion and gay marriage, their views on those issues tend to resemble those of Americans as a whole.
According to surveys conducted in the past two years by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of American Catholics believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, and 42 percent support gay marriage. But opposition to both abortion and gay marriage rises significantly among those who report that they attend church at least once a week.
John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for National Catholic Reporter, told participants in a panel discussion at the Pew Center last week that the pope likely will address the sexual abuse scandal with Catholic bishops and make brief references to it in public speeches in both Washington and New York.
Allen expects "an expression of deep regret for what has happened, a determination to ensure that it doesn't happen again. I think also he wants to try to offer a shot in the arm to the American Catholic Church, probably a note of appreciation for Catholics who have stuck with the church despite everything that has happened, who are the vast majority of the American church. All of that, I would predict, is not going to be satisfying to those who have been most scarred by this crisis."
But the major focus of his message is not expected to center on the past or on the specifics of tension between Rome and the American church.
Allen said he expects the pope to offer "a strong defense of traditional Catholic faith and practice that is, a kind of recalling people to those traditional markers of Catholic thought, speech, practice, but phrasing all that in the most relentlessly positive fashion possible."
The pope's emphasis has been on hope and love, Allen said, noting those are the topics of his two encyclicals since becoming pontiff. "People who were expecting him to come in and go negative in one form or another, I suspect, are going to be disappointed. ... I suspect people will be surprised, by and large, by the overall positive tone of his presentation."
Catholic News Service reported earlier this week that, in a videotaped message, the pope said he wants to bring "a message of Christian hope to all Americans and to the United Nations."
"I shall come to the United States as pope for the first time to proclaim this great truth: Jesus Christ is hope for men and women of every language, race, culture and social condition," the pope said. "I know how deeply rooted this gospel message is in your country. I am coming to share it with you, in a series of celebrations and gatherings.
"It is God who saves us, he saves the world and all of history. He is the shepherd of his people. I am coming, sent by Jesus Christ, to bring you his word of life," he said. "I want you to know that ... my heart is close to all of you, especially to the sick, the weak and the lonely."
The pope is expected to arrive in Washington on Tuesday in his first papal visit to the United States, visiting the White House, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic University of America and with interfaith leaders at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center. He'll address tens of thousands of faithful gathered in the new Nationals Park before heading north to New York and the U.N.While in the Big Apple, he'll visit a major synagogue in a bid to ease tensions with Jews after comments early in his papacy that had some Jewish leaders wondering whether he was calling on Jews to convert to Catholicism. He's expected to address human rights at the U.N., then visit ground zero and St. Patrick's Cathedral before a Mass at Yankee Stadium.