Pope Benedict arrives in US

Catholic leader prepares for historic visit to Manhattan synagogue.

pope benedict US 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
pope benedict US 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
NEW YORK - As Pope Benedict XVI prepares for his first visit as pontiff to the United States, those who have met him say he knows and admires much about the country, but also sees a culture in need of moral guidance. Benedict arrived late Tuesday for a whirlwind visit to Washington and New York. He will meet President George W. Bush at the White House, address leaders in Catholic higher education, speak at the United Nations, visit ground zero and hold two stadium Masses before leaving on Sunday night. The pope's visit also includes an unprecedented outreach effort to the American Jewish community. Following an meeting at the John Paul II Cultural Center on Thursday in Washington, where he will address leaders of five faiths - Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu and Jain - the pope will hold a separate meeting with American Jewish leaders. On Friday, the day before Pessah, a pope will visit an American synagogue for the first time; Benedict will offer a holiday greeting at the Park East Synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The pope's visit comes after a controversy sparked by his decision last year to revive the Latin Good Friday Mass, which includes a prayer for the "Conversion of the Jews." At the time, Jewish leaders feared the revival of the prayer would undo four decades of progress following Nostra Aetate, the 1965 document that absolved the Jews of the killing of Jesus and marked a new period of Jewish-Catholic relations. Originally, the prayer espoused the idea that the covenant between the Jews and God had been superseded by the New Testament, and asked God to "remove the veil" from the hearts of Jews. When reviving this prayer, the Pope rewrote it, removing the incendiary language. But as it stands, the prayer asks God to "enlighten their hearts, so that they might know Jesus Christ as the Savior of all mankind." Following concern from Jewish leaders, a statement issued by the Vatican assured Jews that the prayer did not indicate a change "in the Catholic Church's regard for the Jews." It also affirmed that Nostra Aetate "presents the fundamental principles" guiding Catholic relations with the Jewish people." While some communal leaders feel the clarifications don't go far enough to reject proselytizing, many appear to be assuaged. "Whatever sensitivities this raises, it should not rise to the level of discontinuing relations with the Vatican," said Rabbi Richard Marker, vice chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, the Vatican's official Jewish dialogue partner. "There is no organization I know of that is boycotting the reception on Thursday." In the end what will matter most is the way the prayer will be interpreted by Roman Catholic communities around the world. So far there have been no incidents to signal concern, Marker said. "I haven't heard of any Catholic community that has said it is legitimate to convert Jews," said Marker. "Realistically, that's the only thing that matters to us." Though the pope's meetings with the Jewish community are expected to be largely symbolic, they will be an opportunity for Jewish leaders to get familiarized with a pope who is in many respects different from his predecessor. "Nostra Aetate has been enforced for 43 years, 27 of them under the reign of John Paul II, and we became accustomed to someone concerned about Jewish concerns," said Rabbi Gary Greenbaum, the US director of Interreligious Affairs for Engaging America, a program of the American Jewish Committee. "Catholic-Jewish relations are important to Benedict as well, but we are getting accustomed to the fact that he is a different pope, not better or worse, just different." One of those differences is that the pope - he turns 81 on Wednesday - generally holds no more than three or four meetings a day. The fact that he arranged to hold a separate meeting with Jewish leaders was significant, Greenbaum said. "To add another meeting is more of a big deal, it had to be decided," said Greenbaum. "It's the first time ever that the Pope brought greetings to Jews on Passover." Benedict traveled to the US five times before he was elected pope in 2005, during his many years as the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog. The Rev. David Wells, a theologian at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a prominent evangelical school outside Boston, met Ratzinger years ago at a conference. During a coffee break, the Roman Catholic cardinal picked up on a point Wells had made, launching into a detailed discussion of the "Institutes of the Christian Religion," the seminal theological book by John Calvin and a key work on the Reformation. "I was very impressed by the wide range of his knowledge, his lucidity and the grasp of the issues, both historical and contemporary," Wells said. Benedict, a former theology professor, has made ecumenical outreach a cornerstone of his papacy, although he has upset some Protestants by affirming that the Catholic Church is the only "true" church. The pope is holding a prayer service with Protestant and Orthodox Christian leaders on Friday night at a Manhattan parish. Ray Flynn, the former Boston mayor who served as US ambassador to the Vatican, recalled Ratzinger walking by a newsstand outside St. Peter's Square where Flynn was looking at papers. Ratzinger stopped and discussed American current events with Flynn for nearly 20 minutes. "I was just amazed by his level of curiosity and awareness about all that was taking place in the US," Flynn said. "He kept using the phrase, 'The generosity of the United States.'" Flynn is among those hosting a birthday party for Benedict on Wednesday night in Washington. It's not clear whether the pope will attend. The party is among several events related to the visit that aren't on Benedict's official itinerary. He is expected to meet privately with religious representatives and other leaders. Some Catholics had expressed disappointment that the pope wasn't visiting the Archdiocese of Boston. The clergy sex abuse crisis erupted there in 2002 with the case of one predator priest, then spread nationwide and beyond. Abuse-related costs, including massive settlements with victims, have surpassed $2 billion for American dioceses since 1950. However, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the pope's secretary of state, told The Associated Press that Benedict would address the scandal during his trip and "will try to open the path of healing and reconciliation." Benedict will speak to priests at a Saturday morning Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's US ambassador, told the National Catholic Reporter that a meeting of the pope and victims was "within the field of possibility." Karl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic lay fraternal group, said some Americans were unaware of Benedict's role in paving the way for the US bishops' new discipline policy in response to the scandal. At the time, Benedict lead the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which reviewed all molestation cases against clergy worldwide. "He was the key person," Anderson said on Monday, "in helping the bishops' reforms get through some roadblocks in the Vatican." Benedict arrives at an uncertain moment in the US church. With more than 64 million members, it is the largest denomination in the country. However, a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that many US-born Catholics are leaving the church, and that the church is growing mainly because of Hispanic immigration. Liberal and conservative Catholics are still at odds over the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. And many Catholic advocacy groups are planning protests around Benedict's visit. On Monday, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests asked the UN to investigate whether the Vatican's response to abuse violated UN protections for children. The Rev. Joseph Fessio, a former student of Benedict's and founder of Ignatius Press, the pope's English-language publisher, predicted that the pope's visit would draw attention away from the "dimples and dark spots" in the church. "He's such a deeply cultured and intelligent person," Fessio said. "When someone like John Paul the II or Benedict comes as a public figure and speaks, there's an integrity that's really clear to anyone with an open heart and open mind."