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Catholic Students Seek Papal Connection

By Daniela Deane and William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 18, 2008

As Pope Benedict delivered a message about academic freedom at American Catholic colleges yesterday, many students said they didn't relate to him as well as they did to his charismatic predecessor but were open to his message and excited to see him.

Thousands of students gathered at Catholic University in Northeast Washington, where Benedict delivered a speech on the role of Church-affiliated colleges and universities, and watched him travel later to the John Paul II Cultural Center.

"I don't think he is connecting too well with American youth, not like JP2. I don't feel a connection with him yet," said Matthew Gittens, 21, a history major from Boston, who said he grew up following John Paul II in a deeply Catholic family.

"I still feel like I don't completely know what he's all about," agreed Brian Freiberger, 21, a business major from New Jersey.

In his visits to the United States, John Paul II embraced young people, reaching out to them, preaching to them and singing with them. Benedict is an older, more distant figure, said many of the students watching him this week in Washington. He did not wade into the crowds.

"Benedict is almost the complete opposite of JP2," said Beth Kramer, a Catholic University finance major from Philadelphia.

She was among the many students who chanted "CUA Loves the Pope" as they watched Benedict wave to the crowd before attending an interfaith meeting at the cultural center.

"JP2 was really outgoing," Kramer said. "Benedict is much more bashful; you can see that. He's very different and it can be hard for us to understand" his message.

Still, some students said there was a need for Benedict to address his concerns about the loss of Catholic identity on college campuses. Liz Kalk, 20, a student at Marymount University in Arlington, said, "It's a good thing to address, because a lot of Catholic schools are straying from that now in favor of cultural and moral relativity, which, I guess, comes along with going to college."

And David Guillen, 18, a freshman at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmittsburg, said: "What Benedict is talking about, we see it in the university: a split between what the professor says, when he's given a lot of leeway, and what Church doctrine says. Benedict is trying to reconcile that so we're on the same page."

Other students said they were unsure whether Benedict appreciated the freedom of thought expected in U.S. higher education.

"He is a little strict for American youth," said Kaylee Rattie, a Catholic University freshman business major from Boyds. "But I think he's sparking some excitement by coming to America. . . . It's a good start."

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