Pope in landmark White House visit
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Pope Benedict XVI is in Washington for his first papal visit to the US. He is expected to discuss the Iraq war and ways to combat extremist ideologies when he meets with President George W. Bush on Wednesday. (Story: M. Henbest)
Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate his 81st birthday on Wednesday with a 21-gun salute. The festivites, hosted by US President George W. Bush on the South Lawn of the White House, include a State Dinner later in the evening.
More than 9,000 people are expected to attend the opening ceremony, making it "one of the largest arrival ceremonies ever held at the White House," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
The lavishness of the occasion stresses the importance of Pope Benedict’s first visit to a country where faith remains very much alive. By contrast, the Catholic hierarchy regards present-day Europe as too secular.
For the Vatican, the trip is also an exercise in public relations, designed to boost the image of the US Catholic Church in the wake of the child abuse scandal, which has plagued the church since 2002.
“On the one hand, it’s a birthday party,” Jean-Pierre Denis, managing editor of French catholic weekly La Vie, told France 24. “But on the other hand, it’s one of the most difficult trips a pope could make to the US.”
The US, a “model society” for the Vatican?
The 6-day papal visit includes an address to the United Nations Assembly on Friday, meetings with leaders of other churches and a mass celebration in a New York stadium.
23.9% of the US population is Catholic, according to the Pew Forum on religion and public life.
In a survey released Sunday by the nations’ bishops, eight in 10 Catholics said they were somewhat or very satisfied with his leadership. Nearly half a million people sought tickets to his public events in Washington DC and New York City.
Benedict rates as favorably with US Catholics as did Pope John Paul II on the eve of his second major visit to the United States, in 1987.
“The US is a model of a society that’s very modern and very religious. It’s also a wealthy society, which is important because it is financially self-sufficient,” says Jean-Marie Guénois, editor-in-chief of French catholic daily La Croix. “This church helps fund other Catholic churches in South America, Asia and Africa.”
President Bush, a protestant, went out of his way to welcome the Pope, greeting him in person at the airport, something he rarely does.
“The fact is that if you’re a conservative, you can find common ground with Pope Benedict on American cultural battles, such as abortion, the importance of the family, freedom of worship,” says Armen Georgian, France 24 international news editor.
Defusing the Church’s pedophilia scandal
In an attempt to prevent the Church’s pedophilia scandal from overshadowing his visit, Benedict took advantage of the media presence on the flight from Rome to Washington to say he felt “deeply ashamed” about it. He added that he would try to “heal the wounds caused by the pedophile priests.”
But he has so far refused to meet victims’ associations.
The child abuse scandal has taken a heavy toll on the Catholic Church, forcing it to pay an estimated $2 billion in legal fees and settlements. It is estimated that out of 42,000 American priests, two to six thousand individuals have been involved in sex abuse cases.
A Washington Post-ABC news poll published on Tuesday showed about three-quarters of Catholics and non-Catholics disapproved of how the Church dealt with this issue. A growing 62% of Catholics said the Church was not reflective of their views.
“One of the Pope’s challenges is to clean the image of the church and to do it without triumphalism,” says Jean-Marie Guénois, the editor-in-chief of the French catholic daily La Croix. “His tone on the plane indicates that he is intent on keeping a low profile and that now is a time for explanation.”
Benedict XVI-Bush: more agreement than disagreement?
Pope Benedict’s birthday party will be followed by a one-on-one discussion with President Bush.
They both oppose abortion and embryonic stem cell research, but differ on questions such as the Iraq war and the death penalty.
According to the White House, the talks will touch on ways of protecting human rights, combating extremist ideology especially in the Muslim world and religious freedom.
Benedict told reporters on the plane he would ask Bush to boost development aid to poor countries so their citizens would not need to migrate.
"The fundamental solution is that there will be no need to emigrate, that there will be enough jobs and a sufficient social fabric so no one has to emigrate any more," he said.
The Vatican took a very critical stand on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 but the White House played down the possibility that the two heads of state may clash on the issue.
"There's a divergence, but I would caution you that there is much more agreement between these two leaders than there is disagreement," President Bush’s spokeswoman said.
Under Pope Benedict, the Vatican has warmed to the idea that US troops could serve as a stabilizing force to protect threatened Christian minorities.
“Pope Benedict is not as strongly involved in politics as John Paul II,” notes La Vie’s Jean-Pierre Denis.
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