A Back-to-Basics Messenger

Pontiff Expected to Stress Traditional Catholic Worship, Belief in Miracles

Kishore Jayabalan, a former official with the Vatican's Pontificate for Justice and Peace and current advocate for market economics at the Vatican speaks about the difference between John Paul II and Benedict with Post's Michelle Boorstein. Video by Michelle Boorstein/The Washington Post
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.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company