A Back-to-Basics Messenger
Pontiff Expected to Stress Traditional Catholic Worship, Belief in Miracles

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

ROME, April 14 -- In an era saturated with entertainment and politics, a key question looms as Pope Benedict XVI leaves here Tuesday for Washington: Is his style too dense to get Americans' attention?

Certainly, tens of thousands of U.S. Catholics have been jockeying for tickets to his Masses in Washington and New York; about 5,000 members of the media will cover him; and Catholics across the spectrum are touting points on which he agrees with them. For traditionalists, that means Catholicism's superiority and the revival of centuries-old prayer, music and clerical garments in church. For those to the left, it means his comments against the Iraq war, global warming and nuclear arms.

But Benedict, in making his first trip as pope to the United States, brings an agenda, and it's more the stuff of a theology lecture than a mass-media event. He lands at Andrews Air Force base Tuesday afternoon, where he will be greeted by President Bush and first lady Laura Bush.

To be sure, there are tangible goals: Ramp up frank interfaith dialogue. Return Catholics to regular, traditional worship that reminds them of their long history. But his biggest aspiration for his six-day trip is to encourage Christians to believe in Jesus -- to really believe in him, not as a metaphor but as a real miracle meant to deliver human beings from misery and war. The challenge, experts say, is trying to sell this message in a culture dominated more by reason than faith.

It's no easier for him in Europe, where churches are relatively empty compared to those in the United States. Italians have just held national elections, and attention on Benedict's upcoming journey has been nonexistent. Thousands came to hear him give his brief weekly address at St. Peter's massive piazza Sunday, but most apparently were tourists -- the whooping and clapping kicked in only when he began speaking in languages other than Italian.

"I think he's the first person to recognize that his skills are not those of what the world expects from a pope. But I think he feels very deeply that the world needs simplicity and some kind of very basic talk about what it is that Christians believe," said Delia Gallagher, a longtime Vatican correspondent.

Benedict feels that Western, secular societies don't take profound, supernatural religious faith seriously, a condition that he believes leads to rampant consumerism and nonchalance about such things as poverty. Religion-inspired terrorism shows, he believes, the opposite phenomenon: faith unhinged from reason.

Many here predict he will expand that idea at his address Friday to the United Nations by talking about the link between freedom and religion. He believes, essentially, that there is such a thing as right and wrong, that it comes from God and that it is the basis of free societies. He is worried that people have lost the larger point of religion, experts say.

"He's been concerned that the mystery of Christianity come through," that people aren't put off by secondary issues, said Joseph Komonchak of Catholic University. "He is concerned that people are inclined not to even look at [Christianity's] primary claims."

It's not that Benedict's theology never gets applied to daily hot-button issues. In fact, the man who took office three years ago with the nickname "God's Rottweiler" has wound up oft-quoted.

"He's to the left of the Democratic Party on global peace and security. He's been a wonderful moral leader when it comes to those issues," said Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, a group that focuses on social justice issues.

Obscure theology aside, it's possible the pope will let loose a zinger like the few that have brought his generally dull persona into the limelight. Greatest hits include a 2006 lecture quoting a source calling Muhammad inhuman (which led to riots in the Muslim world and the killing of a nun), a document last year in which he said other Christian churches are "defective" and his decision last month to personally baptize a famous Italian Muslim journalist on Easter. Some called the baptism incendiary; others said he was trying to make a point to Muslim countries about religious freedom for minority Christians.

"If that wasn't provocative, I don't know what is," said the Rev. Thomas Williams, a theology professor at the Regina Apostolorum University. "Some think he's being naïve, but I'm convinced he has a very good idea what will come from his statements and actions. . . . He wants to stir up a debate, but he's not a showman, he's not charismatic, not going to be fun to watch -- but he's going to be thought-provoking."

Benedict, who turns 81 Wednesday, travels overseas comparatively rarely, and the trip reportedly could cost dioceses and the Vatican as much as $10 million. In other words, he's coming for a reason. The trip materialized out of an invitation to address the United Nations and was planned around the 60th anniversary of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, Vatican officials say.

Benedict isn't well-known to many Americans, Catholic or otherwise, and he has said he doesn't know the United States well.

The Vatican has been abuzz, with an entourage of priests leaving for the United States (priest-diplomats, priest-liturgical experts, priest-speechwriters and priest-pundits, including Williams, who is flying in to analyze the event for CBS). This will be the first papal trip to Washington since 1979 and only the second to the White House.

When Benedict was elected pope three years ago, some Catholics went into panic over his reputation as orthodoxy enforcer. In his 25 years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger -- his name before becoming pope -- was known for killing the careers of a few Catholic theologians who questioned too much.

He wrote that gay parents "do violence" to adopted children by their very existence. He said the idea that God created religious diversity on purpose threatened Christian mission work.

Although many have said they longed for his charismatic predecessor, John Paul II, many of Benedict's views are similar to the previous pope's. Whereas "JP2" was a skilled communicator, Benedict is described as a shy man who has wished for years to return to his German homeland to teach. However, since coming into office, he has tried to focus on the positive. His two major writings as pope focus on hope and love.

Benedict has also become deeply involved in frank discussions with other faiths, partly because he believes the theological distinctions were becoming blurry and partly because he believes such relationships can only exist if everyone is honest.

"He wants dialogue with teeth," veteran Vatican reporter John Allen wrote shortly after the 2006 blowup regarding Islam.

But Benedict has some hurdles to overcome before he will be seen, ultimately, as a uniter of faith and reason. A major one has to do with his view of other religions and secular society in general. It is essential to have structures and institutions to create justice, he has written, but governments and organizations can't provide love and charity.

"The pope says you can have perfect structures, but they will turn against themselves without a Christian soul," said Kishore Jayabalan, a former Vatican official on peace and justice issues who now works to promote conservative economics among Vatican officials.

Many in the Muslim world remain wary of the pope, particularly since the 2006 controversy.

"What people don't agree upon is whether he was deliberately trying to fire an opening salvo to lead to dialogue. Most Muslims don't think so. That's just been the fortunate consequence, because of the measured response of Muslim leadership," said Dr. Imad ad-Dean Ahmad, director of the Minaret of Freedom Institute and one of the non-Catholics invited to an interfaith gathering Thursday.

Interfaith activists often note how successful John Paul II was at dialogue and acknowledging the divinity of others, particularly Jews. Benedict is more "hawkish" on Islam, in Allen's words, and is more protective of traditional liturgy. He has revived papal garments from centuries ago and has characterized Gregorian chant music, for example, as more legitimate than contemporary spiritual tunes.

Even his supporters wonder if Benedict is too invested in structure as a way to inspire. They suggest that it's because he is so focused on Europe and its lost Catholic rites and routines. Meanwhile, Asia and Africa are growing with a messier, more vibrant Christianity.

"John Paul had a better grasp of the pulse of Catholicism today. . . . He threw himself into frontier Catholicism," said Lamin Sanneh, a Yale historian and convert from Islam who advises the Vatican on Muslim issues. "John Paul was a pope of movements. This pope is a pope of rule books."

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