A Papal Pilgrimage

Judging from the early coverage of the pope's upcoming U.S. visit, you'd think that Attila the Hun in red Prada shoes was about to stride onto American soil. "He's coming to deliver a stern message," the scribblers warn. "He's cold." "A hard-liner." "A mystery." But for those of us who have spent years watching Benedict XVI (I'm the news director for the Eternal Word Television Network), Papa Ratzinger isn't a mystery at all. At heart, Benedict is a gentle scholar. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, is remembered for his dramatic gestures—but can you remember anything he actually said? Benedict, by contrast, has managed to break through the cultural static entirely because of his direct, often provocative words. He's a quotable pope, unafraid of stoking controversy and starting a conversation, as he did with his 2006 address in Regensburg, Germany, when he suggested that Islam had lost its reason and the West had lost its faith. Expect at least a few such surprises during his U.S. sojourn. In his career as a theologian, Benedict has committed himself to reinvigorating Roman Catholic tradition and making the faith reasonable amid an unreasonable culture. It's a thread that will run through his 11 addresses this week. A broader look at what he'll likely say and do here.

April 15, 2008
Pope arrives, Washington, D.C.

April 17, 19 & 20
Masses for the Masses: The masses at Washington's Nationals Park and New York's Yankee Stadium will provide opportunities for Benedict to confirm Roman Catholics in their faith. Look for the pope to mention the need for a personal encounter with the living Jesus while showcasing the sacredness of the liturgy and the beauty of the church's tradition. Translation: don't expect dancing girls on the altar or Radiohead tunes from the choir. With apologies to Harry Connick Jr. (who'll sing in New York), these masses won't be about entertainment. They'll be about inspiring the faithful to reform their lives and society: Benedict's unique brand of "trickle-down spirituality" in action.

April 16
The White House: April 15 will mark the first time President George W. Bush has held a tarmac greeting for a head of state; public statements will begin the following morning on the South Lawn. Sources in Rome tell me that Benedict will laud America for its innate religiosity, generosity and commitment to personal and religious liberty. Forget the reports that he'll criticize the war in Iraq. That's not his style. With the pre-Easter murder of Chaldean Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul and the April 5 drive-by killing of an Orthodox priest in Baghdad fresh in his memory, the pope will urge more protection for the Christian minority in Iraq. The White House, for its part, is pulling out all the stops: hymns, a 21-gun salute, a drum-and-fife corps, thousands of guests.

Meeting With Bishops: On the afternoon of April 16, the pope will meet with his bishops in the crypt of the National Shrine—an ironic setting, one that conjures images of the prophet Ezekiel, whom God commanded to go into a valley of dry bones and announce, "Ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord … Behold I will send spirit into you, and you shall live." Sources in Rome say that this is where the pope will reflect on the sex-abuse crisis, which has bankrupted five dioceses and broken millions of hearts. Benedict's message in the crypt, I'm told, will be "upbeat and spiritual" but "direct." Initially, this was planned as a private meeting among the pope and his bishops. But cameras are now being brought in at the insistence of the Holy See. "We want the journalists to discuss what the pope says, not what a few bishops say the pope said," a high-ranking Vatican official told me.

April 17
Interfaith Meeting: At a talk for 200 religious leaders at the John Paul II Cultural Center, expect Benedict to repeat his call for peace between Muslims and Catholics. Later he will become the first pope to offer good wishes in person to Jewish leaders as they prepare for Passover. Then he'll drop by New York's Park East Synagogue on April 18. A permanent Catholic-Muslim Forum, established after his bombshell speech in Regensburg, will hold its first meeting at the Vatican in November.

Meeting With Catholic Education Leaders: If his prior speeches are a guide, the pope will argue that academic inquiry and objective truth need not be mutually exclusive. He will surely argue for "truth in advertising" at Catholic institutions: encouraging them to act and teach in conformity with Catholic tradition. No matter what he says, expect to hear gnashing of teeth from the old guard.

April 18
United Nations: This is the primary reason for the pope's visit. Benedict wishes to speak to the General Assembly and the world on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Look for him to make the case that human rights are best protected via fidelity to natural law. "No law made by man can overturn that of the Creator without dramatically affecting society in its very foundation," the pope said in 2007. Some version of this thought will likely be heard in those headphones at the U.N. Also look for him to urge member nations to extend basic human rights to the most vulnerable, especially the unborn, disabled and poor.