Pontiff Begins Historic Visit

From his landing at Andrews Air Force Base to his historic first Mass in the United States, Pope Benedict XVI has been a focal point of tens of thousands of Catholics in the D.C. area.
By Jacqueline L. Salmon and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI, the spiritual leader of 65 million American Catholics, arrived at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday, bringing his hopes for a religious revival to a country in the thick of a debate over the role of faith in public and private life.

His hair standing up in the stiff breeze, Benedict, in a flapping white cassock and shoulder cape, briskly descended the stairs of his Alitalia jetliner, waving and smiling at the crowd. He was greeted by President Bush, first lady Laura Bush and their daughter Jenna as 800 onlookers waving U.S. and Vatican flags sang "Happy Birthday" to the pontiff, who turns 81 today. Bush's greeting at Andrews was a special show of deference. It is the first time he has personally greeted a visiting head of state upon arrival in the United States.

During Benedict's six-day journey to Washington and New York, he will celebrate two public Masses, address the United Nations and religious leaders and visit Ground Zero. It is his first visit to the United States since becoming pope in April 2005.

But even before Benedict arrived, he was addressing the most anguishing issue for many U.S. Catholics -- the sex-abuse scandal that has convulsed the Church in recent years. Aboard the papal plane, the pontiff said he is "deeply ashamed" of the scandal and assured Catholics that seminaries will not tolerate pedophiles.

"It is a great suffering for the Church in the United States, for the Church in general and for me personally that this could happen," Benedict told reporters during the flight. Using English, the German-speaking pontiff said, "If I read the stories of these victims, it is difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way their mission to give healing, to give love of God to these children."

Benedict's visit will be limited geographically but will embrace a range of issues, including the Iraq war, immigration, the sex-abuse scandal and the state of Catholic education in the United States, through 11 public addresses and a private meeting with Bush at the White House today. His overall agenda for the trip, as he laid it out to journalists on his plane, dubbed Shepherd One, is to bring encouragement and attention to the struggles of the U.S. Catholic Church, to immigrants and their families and to what he sees as the religious foundation of human rights.

On the issue of immigration in the United States, Benedict said he considered the separation of families to be the most serious aspect. "And this really is dangerous for the social, moral and human fabric," he said.

The fundamental solution, he said, is to address the economic and employment problems that force many people to move to the United States. Without elaborating, Benedict said he planned to talk with Bush about his goal: "That there will be enough jobs and a sufficient social fabric so no one has to emigrate anymore. We all must work for this objective."

Although Benedict is not as well known as his predecessor, John Paul II, public demand to see him has been overwhelming, said organizers of the papal events.

In Washington, thousands are expected to line the route of his Popemobile trips today. And 8,000 people are expected to gather outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to catch a glimpse of the pontiff, who is scheduled to address 300 U.S. bishops at the church. For tomorrow's Mass at Nationals Park, the demand for tickets far outweighed the supply.

Until the pontiff departs for New York on Friday, traffic tie-ups in the District are expected to occasionally strangle portions of the city. Security, directed by the Secret Service, is intense. More than 1,300 police officers will be deployed during his visit.

Less than 45 minutes into his flight yesterday, Benedict spoke into a microphone, primarily in Italian. But he answered the question about priest abuse in English.

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