Saturday, September 15, 2007

Coming to America: B16's April Road Show

To paraphrase Paul Revere, and with especially good reason: Yanks, the Pope is coming.... The Pope is COMING!

Two weeks ago, preliminary plans for Benedict XVI's first US visit were disseminated among a handful of senior hierarchs at a DC meeting. In the days since, a rough sketch of the much-anticipated apostolic journey -- the first since 1999 -- has begun to emerge.

Currently slated to take place from 15-20 April 2008, the Tuesday-to-Sunday visit's official centerpiece will be a papal speech before the United Nations General Assembly in New York -- the prime cause for the US tour, which sprung from the pontiff's invitation to the UN headquarters by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Among other events in the Big Apple, the Pope is also slated to celebrate Mass at Central Park alongside, of course, an address and prayers in St Patrick's Cathedral and moment of reflection at Ground Zero.

Alongside the "capital of the world," what could well be Benedict's only on-ground exposure to America and its 70 million Catholics looks set to be concentrated strictly to the East Coast. Though another stop or two remain a distinct possibility -- with Baltimore the most likely addition -- also already confirmed on the papal itinerary are Washington and Boston. The latter's coveted place on the schedule represents a marked victory for Cardinal Sean O'Malley, whose invitation to the pontiff was said to have been initially declined, then accepted only after a firm push by the Capuchin cardinal, who's believed to enjoy a particularly high standing in B16's eyes.

Touching down in Washington, where the professor-Pope is said to be especially eager to see the campus of the Catholic University of America, Benedict will grant the trip's first hosting honors to another of his highly favored ones -- his most-prominent US appointee yet, Archbishop Donald Wuerl. Beyond the requisite meeting with President Bush at the White House and the other formalities of a head of state paying an official visit to the capital, a Mass on the National Mall is reportedly in the early plans.

The most charged and significant of the stops, however, will be Boston, where -- to put it lightly -- the public attitude is still perceived as "raw" following the local revelations of sexual abuse and cover-up that served to spark the most seismic crisis in the history of American Catholicism and forced the nation's senior churchman, Cardinal Bernard Law, into early retirement. As previously mused on these pages, and especially as accusations of Vatican negligence in dealing with the abuse scandals have spread from beyond US circles into the global church, the evocative venue provides Benedict with the unparalleled stage to address the situation in his most extensive and high-profile detail yet.

While the Boston leg is notable, its place on the the itinerary's first draft isn't surprising; arguably, the first papal visit to the nation since the explosion of 2002 would be panned if the Pope attempted to avert a head-on encounter with the issue that's become the US church's "800lb gorilla."

Boston is slated as the last stop, with a climactic Sunday Mass on Boston Common and lunch with the bishops of New England included on the still-developing schedule. Disputes over logistical and security arrangements for the final leg have reportedly already begun in earnest, and the continued search for healing in the besieged archdiocese was further underscored at an intensive clergy convocation yesterday. According to attendees, a psychological profile of the Boston presbyterate released at the daylong gathering reported that nearly half of the priests would prefer to opt out of their current ministry, or ministry altogether, and that the priests' experience through the last five years has yielded rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in excess of the survivors of the 1994 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, which killed 168.

But by day's end, as one attendee put it, in his closing remarks -- which another priest termed "self-relevatory" -- O'Malley yet again "revealed himself to be a master story teller, a good speaker and a man of great trust in and hope for the church." Noting that the response to the cardinal's remarks "was loud and long," his message reminded the presbyterate that "the rebuilding of the church rests in the deepening conversion of priests." In a nod to the Capuchin habit that's become his hallmark, the cardinal referred to himself at one point as "a tattered brother in a plain brown wrapper."

"Many if not most of us priests entered the day wondering if the exercise would be worth our time and energy," one of the Beantown priests mused in summary. "But as the day unfolded," the cleric said he found that "a very significant majority" of the priests present "expressed delight that we had come together in a spirit of open dialogue to renew the treasured fraternity we share." The convocation garnered an unexpectedly high turnout of the Boston priests, estimated at 450.

Responding to the trip reports, Boston archdiocesan spokesman Terry Donilon held the official line that, as the archdiocese still awaits a formal announcement on its invitation from Rome, "any talk about a potential visit... is just speculation." (The specifics of papal visits are usually publicized by the Vatican two to three months before a planned journey takes place.) As regards the convocation, Donilon said the gathering "was a good day for our clergy to meet and share in candid dialogue about their ministry and the archdiocese."

O'Malley is currently abroad on a long-planned ecumenical pilgrimage; alongside his Greek Orthodox counterpart, Metropolitan Methodios, and a mixed group of clergy and faithful of their churches, the Bostonians are slated to visit Rome, Istanbul and St Petersburg over the next ten days.

The pontiff's arrival for the first multistop papal trip to the States in almost 13 years will come but a week after five dioceses mark the 200th anniversary of the American hierarchy's first expansion: Pope Pius VII's elevation of the founding diocese of Baltimore to metropolitan rank and erection of new local churches at Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Bardstown (now Louisville) on 8 April 1808.

On the anniversary date itself, New York will hold its celebration at Radio City Music Hall. The visit's slated timing alleviates panic among some Gothamites that Benedict would end up in the city for the anniversary, thus taking on the celebrant's role for the bicentennial liturgy, a development that would've rendered the Rockette mecca's capacity of 6,000 insufficient. The proposed liturgy sites imply the Vatican advance team's expectation for larger crowds than the initially-proposed venues for the Masses -- New York's Yankee Stadium and Boston's Fenway Park -- could accommodate.

On a related note, despite prior assurances that no change at the helm of the nation's most influential local church would take place until the bicentennial celebrations had been concluded, whether Benedict's Manhattan leg is hosted by Cardinal Edward Egan or an archbishop of New York of the reigning Pope's own choosing remains a very open question. As canonically required, Egan submitted his resignation at his 75th birthday last April, and the customary alarms that invariably accompany a pending transition are being felt in Midtown -- where, no joke, the ceilings have already begun to cave in.

Furthermore, as Catholic News Service's John Thavis reported yesterday from Rome, the April timetable deals a setback to hopes for the Pope's attendance at the International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec City. The mid-June event in Canada's ecclesiastical cradle -- but a month before Benedict's intended journey to Australia for World Youth Day in Sydney -- is the marquee project of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, a member of the reigning pontificate's "kitchen cabinet."

Lastly, as the plans stand, the visit shatters the long-standing protocol for papal trips to the US.

From Paul VI's 1965 14-hour jaunt to New York and the UN straight through 'til the last visit (John Paul II's 1999 stopover in St Louis), the Popes and their advance teams made the conscious effort to keep the pontiff out of the States in the midst of a presidential election year.

This time, with the primaries winding down and the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees likely emerging in the very midst of the papal presence, the usual scenario is conspicuously not the case.

So there's your exclusive brief as of this minute.... For all the rest as it unfolds, stay tuned.