Saturday, January 28, 2006

More On '07

When a cardinal-elector from a far country approached Pope Benedict XVI to give his post-electoral homage, he invited the new pontiff to come to his homeland. Benedict is said to have replied, "I will neither travel east nor west."

Apparently, that statement has been rethought.

Yesterday's announcement by Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore that Pope Benedict XVI "is planning to come to the United States next year" has kicked off a flurry of discussion in church circles about the timing and possible dynamics of this pontificate's prospective maiden voyage to a country which boasts one of the world's largest, most enthusiastic and well-financed Catholic populations, but also one which, especially in recent years, has found itself painfully divided and notably restive in the wake of traumatic and seemingly endless revelations of sex abuse by clergy and cover-up by church officials.

First, a clarifier: it seems the Baltimore press is trying to downplay Keeler's report, working from the line that the Pope will not be coming to rededicate the Basilica of the Assumption, the first American cathedral whose $32 million restoration will be completed in November of this year. However, the simple fact that Keeler -- known for his diplomacy and discretion -- has announced publicly that a trip is in the planning stages is enough to suggest that it's in the bag. (Those briefed over the past few months were sworn to secrecy so as not to disrupt the considerations.)

Due to all its political and economic exigencies and the the nation's visibility on the world stage, in multiple ways, a papal trip to the US "kills two birds with one stone." This is especially true due to the presence of the United Nations in New York, which John Paul II addressed on three occasions (1979, 1987, 1995) and whose General Assembly in 1965 precipitated the first papal visit to the American continent, when Pope Paul VI spent 15 hours in New York.

Initial soundings taken over the last 24 hours indicate that the timing for this visit, if it indeed goes forward, will most likely be in the fall -- October to be precise -- so that the Pope could address the General Assembly of the UN. As his two predecessors are the only heads of state to have ever used all of the Organization's seven official languages in their addresses to the plenary meeting of the world body, one would expect that Ratzinger the Linguist will let his colors show in delivering what would be one of the keystone geopolitical messages of his pontificate.

Being in New York will, of course, allow a visit with the Catholic community there. When the particular churches of New York, Newark, Brooklyn and Rockville Centre are taken into account, four of the ten largest American dioceses -- comprising approximately 15% of US Catholicism's 60 million faithful -- are in the city's metropolitan area, all within an hour's drive. Further sweetening the deal is that New York is one of the four American dioceses which will mark the 200th anniversary of its founding six months later, in April 2008, a historical note which is seeming to play an important part of the backdrop for the thinking behind this prospective visit.

It is important to remember, however, that the Pope who will be visiting next time is a very different man from the one who bounded off the papal plane and routinely conducted 19 hours of public events on the five US trips which he made in the time of his good health. Benedict XVI will be halfway through his 80th year in the fall of 2007, and the shape of the schedule will undoubtedly reflect both this Pope's strengths and his personal preferences, which are quite different than those of his predecessor. Many prospectives have come up in that realm, but fewer Mega-Masses and fewer wide-scale events on the whole appear to be the most certain of those.

For more on that, look at the template set in Cologne -- the Pope had lunch with the youth delegates, had several semi-private meetings with political leaders, ecumenical representatives and members of the hierarchy, but celebrated Mass privately every morning and the only full public events of the four day calendar were the Welcome in the Cathedral Square, the meetings with seminarians and the Jewish community at Cologne Synagogue, the Saturday Vigil and Sunday Mass at Marienfeld.

Alongside Baltimore, New York and the likely inclusion of Washington, a certain watershed stop is also being considered.