Benedict XVI ready to meet America

VATICAN CITY Benedict's first trip to the United States as pope begins Tuesday -- a five-day visit to Washington and New York, including a speech at the United Nations. Anyone expecting strident speeches from the man once called "God's rottweiler" for his role defending Roman Catholic doctrine will be disappointed.

Benedict will deliver an unwavering message that society needs religious values, but this intellectual pontiff will do it in the most positive way possible. After making relatively little headway in his efforts to re-ignite the faith in Europe, America's roughly 65 million Catholics seem anxious to hear him.

"He has a way of helping us see what the Gospel and what the Catholic faith tradition asks of us that is challenging and not frightening," Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, Benedict's host in the first leg of the five-day trip, told The Associated Press.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, notes that "religion is deeply rooted in American life despite the separation of church and state."

A March poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found nearly three-quarters of U.S. Catholics viewed Benedict positively. Among the U.S. public at large, 52 percent viewed the pope favorably, but about one-third said they didn't know enough about him to answer.

Nearly three years after he assumed the papacy following the death of John Paul II, the pope's trip to America will change that.

"The intention behind my visit ... is to reach out spiritually to all Catholics in the United States," Benedict said in a video greeting to the U.S. ahead of the trip.

Catholic leaders say any perception of Benedict as a mirthless scold is unfair -- a hangover from his long tenure as head of the Vatican office that enforces orthodoxy. Bishops and others describe him as a shy, humble man with a keen sense of humor and a love of teaching. Long before he went to the Vatican, Benedict, a theologian, was a university professor.

The Rev. David M. O'Connell, president of the Catholic University of America, noted that John Paul emerged on the world scene at the relatively young age of 58 when he was elected pope. He eventually became a grandfather figure for the church as his pontificate stretched to 26 years.

Benedict was already 78 when he was elected in 2005, and has been perceived as a "wisdom figure" for Catholics from the start, O'Connell said.

"This pope, without in any way trying to be critical of his predecessor, has emphasized Jesus Christ, not the person of the pope, as critically significant," O'Connell said.

"The other pope used his personality to spread the Gospel and the Gospel message, and he did it very effectively. This pope knows he doesn't have a rock star personality and he's using what his greatest gifts are to get the message out there. And his greatest gifts are intellectual and pastoral."

Benedict has struggled against the tide of secularism, but may see the United States -- which he visited five times as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- as a chance to gain ground.

In recently receiving the new U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, Benedict welcomed what he called the American people's "historic" appreciation of the role of religion in shaping public policy.

He used the occasion to condemn abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage, praising "the efforts of so many of your fellow citizens and government leaders to ensure legal protection for God's gift of life from conception to natural death."

The visit would normally have taken place in October, when the General Assembly of the United Nations meets, but was moved up to avoid clashing with the last weeks of the U.S. presidential campaign.

Benedict will begin the trip with a visit with President George W. Bush at the White House. Like his predecessor, Benedict was sharply critical of the war in Iraq but shares with Bush a deep concern over the plight of Iraqi Christians.

The pope also will turn 81 while in the United States, and all American cardinals have been invited to a birthday lunch Wednesday at the Vatican embassy in Washington. Vatican aides say the pope is in good shape.

"I was struck, the Holy Father just seemed very much energized," Archbishop Wuerl said after meeting with Benedict in Rome before the trip. "His walk, his gait is impressive. You would never guess his age."

Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters last Tuesday that Benedict has no plans to meet with any of the candidates. However, a host of politicians from both major parties may be on hand Wednesday when he visits the White House.

Benedict has warned Catholic politicians who must decide on such issues as abortion, euthanasia and marriage that the faith's values are "not negotiable."

However, unlike 2004 when Democratic contender John Kerry's support of abortion rights caused friction among Catholic bishops, none of the leading Democratic or Republican candidates this year is a Catholic. The voting faithful in America do not cast their ballots in a bloc.

Washington Archbishop Wuerl believes Benedict, who speaks excellent if accented English, will look at the "bigger picture" when he has that first public encounter at the White House. He said it will be an occasion "to highlight the Catholic presence and what contribution they can make in this incredibly wonderful country."

Cardinal Bertone, the Vatican's No. 2 official, said Benedict will stress the "dignity of the human being" in his address to the United Nations.

Asked in an AP interview what impact the speech may have on U.S. policy, Bertone said, "every nation has its dignity. It is obvious that also this consideration has an impact on the policy of a great power like the United States. The United States shares the ideals of the United Nations."

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