Monday, June 04, 2007

Ratz Across America

Less than a month after Benedict XVI's first Transatlantic trip as Pope, attention is gradually turning toward what's almost sure to be his next one: an expected visit to the United Nations.

The Holy See announced in late April that the pontiff had accepted the invitation to the organization's New York headquarters extended by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and that the visit would be scheduled for a "mutually convenient time." In keeping with prior papal appearances at the UN, that time is looking to be the period of its General Assembly in the fall of 2008.

To be sure, just like his five-day Brazil trip built around the opening of the CELAM plenary, the UN won't be Benedict's sole destination on these shores. And two US stops which stand a good chance of getting to host the church's most distinguished visitor have already made sure to publicly roll out the red carpet. Last month, the Baltimore Sun reported that Cardinal William Keeler has already sent an invitation to the papal apartment, and yesterday Cardinal Sean O'Malley OFM Cap. of Boston followed suit, announcing that he's done the same in the pages of the Globe.

The first papal tour of the US since John Paul II's one-day touchdown in St Louis in 1999 will inspire no small amount of jockeying for the presence of B16, whose on-the-road pace is much more deliberate -- and light -- than that of his pilgrim predecessor, who made 104 journeys outside Italy during his 27-year reign. In a marked contrast to John Paul's freewheeling walkabouts and marathon day-plans (which usually ran an hour or two behind schedule), Benedict's schedule is precisely observed, featuring fewer high-wattage events and with substantial periods of mid-day rest built in.

Aside from New York, Boston and Baltimore would rate high on a hypothetical "must-visit" list given that the two provide unique stages for the pontiff to tackle ecclesial exigencies both universal and local.

Highlighted by the Basilica of the Assumption -- reopened in November following an extensive two-year, $34 million restoration -- the US' premier see, rich in traditions both of Catholic identity and religious tolerance, would give Benedict an ideal backdrop to speak on the global imperative of religious freedom, which he holds in high import both personally and diplomatically. And, at ground zero of the most seismic moment American Catholicism has ever known, Boston would be the unparalleled platform for the Pope -- who won high marks for the handling of abuse cases as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- to offer a significant, resonant message, primarily to the city's embattled local church but also, by extension, the swaths of the wider Catholic world which have been left shocked and reeling from revelations of sexual abuse by clergy.

It might even be said that the lack of a Boston visit could serve to further the perception, still held in some quarters, that the abuse crises of recent years haven't been sufficiently addressed by the church's top ranks -- a belief the Vatican's been battling in its own backyard after last week's airing by Italy's state television of a 2006 BBC documentary on the crisis and the church's response. After the Italian hierarchy's media outlet branded it as an "infamous slander," the documentary, "Sex Crimes and the Vatican," commanded an audience approaching 5 million Italians. (In light of its protests, the Italian church was offered an opportunity for a televised rebuttal, which was given by Bishop Rino Fisichella, the auxiliary of Rome and rector of the Lateran University.)

As of this writing a Boston message is nothing more than a mental exercise, but given Papa Ratzinger's paper and quote trail, its form would likely give its first treatment to the church's solidarity with victim-survivors, its complete commitment to their healing, and the firmest papal repudiation yet of clergy sex abuse, accompanied by a simultaneous, equally-firm underscoring of the wider context that: 1. cleansing what then-Cardinal Ratzinger famously referred to in 2005 as the "filth" in the church marks not the end of faith, but an impetus for genuine ecclesial renewal and 2. institutional failures, no matter how egregious or glaring, cannot subvert the mission of the church, compromise its teachings, nor upend its hierarchical constitution.

In addition to the symbolics -- not to mention that a late September/early October appearance would fall smack in the middle of the presidential campaign's home stretch -- a fall '08 date would be particularly fortuitous for church observers; Benedict's statements on a US trip would offer a further glimpse into the papal mind on the state of things American before the nation's bishops begin heading to Rome for their five-yearly ad limina visits to the Holy See in early 2009. The yearlong round of visits will mark the States' first such quinquennial meetings in this pontificate.

Of course, a prospective Boston stop would be viewed as daunting. But those around Pope -- who added a day to his voyage to Turkey last year amid death threats following the tumult over his September '06 address at Regensburg -- speak openly and often of his fearlessness. The latest iteration of this came at the weekend when, in an interview with the Italian bishops' daily L'Avvenire, the Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB was asked if Benedict would be holding further press conferences in the wake of the pontiff's in-flight headlines on the way to Brazil, when his comments indicating support for local excommunications of pro-choice politicians caused fierce reactions and elicited multiple clarifications from the Vatican's media operation before the papal party even landed in Sao Paulo.

While saying that future pressers were the Pope's call, Bertone noted that "Cardinal Ratzinger was never afraid of the press," adding that, in his pre-papal incarnation, Benedict would offer responses and comment to journalists who stopped him in the streets of Rome.

Returning to the hot-button question of Catholic politicians whose actions advance access to abortion, while the multiple clarifications indicated that, boiled down, pro-choice politicos were not to present themselves for Communion, in the same interview the Vatican's #2 prelate kept the door open for their excommunication by the local bishops.

Asked for a specific explanation of the Pope's comments aboard the plane, Bertone replied that, in his mind, it seemed "clear that the Pope reminded [reporters] that it falls to the individual bishops to establish if and when to apply the excommunication, which is a penalty foreseen by the Code of Canon Law."

The cardinal added that the situation at hand was a case of "ferendae sententiae," reiterating that the action isn't automatic, but decreed on the judgment of the competent ecclesiastical authority.

On Saturday, President Bush will be received in private audience at the Vatican for his first sit-down with Benedict.