It won't be the easiest roadshow for the leader of the world's largest Christian church, a man who many thought would be a quiet but dogmatic transitional figure focused on preserving the church in an increasingly secular Europe. But Pope Benedict XVI has already upset expectations, and when he arrives this month for his first pontifical visit to the United States, many of his admirers believe that he will overturn more.
As Benedict well appreciates, his upcoming six-day visit to Washington and New York City will bring him into direct contact with a nation that has not only the third-largest Roman Catholic population in the world but also the most diverse. In ethnic terms, that variety may be taking on an increasingly Hispanic cast—at almost 30 percent and rapidly growing—but most of America's 195 dioceses can boast of parishes with a mini-United Nations of national flavorings as well as those in which the melting pot has effectively left no particular ethnic imprint at all.
But the diversity of America's Roman Catholic Church hardly ends with ethnicity. It also includes a rainbow of attitudes and convictions—political, social, liturgical, even theological—that reflect American individualism in ways that strain even the universalism of the Catholic Church. It's a tough act to read this audience and even tougher to know how to address it. And it makes it no easier that this pope, a private man known for his formidable intellect and doctrinal rigor, follows in the footsteps of the charismatic and beloved John Paul II.
Which is not to suggest that most American Catholics are ill-disposed toward Benedict. His former sharp-edged image as God's Rottweiler grew out of his years as chief enforcer of doctrine, the Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who quashed liberation theology or any other departures from strict church teaching. But now completing the third year of his papacy, having penned major encyclicals emphasizing hope and charity, he appears less concerned with policing borders than with gently reminding the flock of core Christian principles. If he remains firmly orthodox in his teaching, it is an "affirmative orthodoxy," in the words of National Catholic Reporter columnist John Allen. "This has been a far more moderate, gradualist pontificate than most people anticipated," Allen says. And as polls have shown, a large majority of American Catholics say they approve of the German-born prelate, who will turn 81 on his U.S. visit.
Yet even Benedict's staunchest supporters admit that most American Catholics have, at best, a dim sense of the man. "He hasn't been as high profile in my mind as John Paul was," says Michael Teolis, the band director at the Latin School of Chicago and a regular mass-attending Catholic. While Teolis approves of what the current pope has done to encourage traditional practices, including the Latin mass, he is still uncertain what Benedict's mission is, even on this trip. "Why," he asks, "is he coming?"
Connection. The official reason is to honor the bicentennial of the nation's five oldest dioceses. The pope's schedule will include three large public masses, a meeting with President Bush, a colloquy with the U.S. bishops, an address to Catholic educators, a speech at the U.N., and a visit to ground zero. But Benedict's larger, unstated mission is to forge a more personal connection with his American flock and indeed with Americans of all faiths. "I think he has captured attention by what he hasn't been," says the Very Rev. David O'Connell, president of the Catholic University of America. "Now he can tell people what he is and is trying to achieve: the renewal of the entire church in the faith in which it has been baptized; a return to the core, the fundamentals."
The question, of course, is what the church will make of that message. And that will depend in great measure on how well the pope's teaching appears to address the needs of a church that almost all Catholics agree is at a critical juncture (and some would even say a crisis). Yet what makes this intersection so critical—and what is needed to bring the church through it—are understood according to all those differences that seem to put this church constantly on the verge of internal upheaval.
Many of those differences amount to a kind of ongoing debate on the value and meaning of Vatican II. The church's 21st ecumenical council, Vatican II (1962-65) was launched with the overarching goal of renewing the church. Its leaders and architects (including the dazzlingly brilliant theologian Joseph Ratzinger) believed that a more sharply defined understanding of the nature of the church and the roles of its hierarchy would help restore Christian unity and open up a dialogue with the contemporary world. Some 40 years later, many American Catholics firmly believe the changes that came out of Vatican II were mostly for the better, whether the vernacular mass, nuns in civilian clothes, reconciliation with Judaism, or ecumenical gestures toward other Christian denominations.