The Deacon's Bench

Predictably, there’s a flurry of press coverage these days about the pope’s upcoming visit to the U.S. — and the New York Times has contributed a snowflake or two with this profile of the papal nuncio, whom The Gray Lady describes as the “pope’s guide” for his trip:

When Pope Benedict XVI makes his first papal trip to the United States in April, he will be guided by a seasoned Vatican ambassador who sees the visit as an opportunity to introduce a little-known pope to a complex set of audiences: American Catholics, Americans in general and global opinion leaders.

“The image of Benedict XVI is not only not well known, but it is badly known,” said Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who as apostolic nuncio is the Vatican’s top diplomat in the United States.

“He is known as an intransigent man, almost an inhuman man,” the archbishop said of Benedict in an interview at the Vatican Embassy in Washington. “It will be enough to listen to him to change completely the idea of this tough, this inhuman person.”

The pope’s visit, from April 15 to 20, will draw Catholics from around the country for Masses at Nationals Park in Washington and Yankee Stadium in New York. He will meet President George W. Bush at the White House, pray at ground zero and address the United Nations.

Benedict, a former professor, is a pope who cultivates words more than dramatic gestures – in contrast to his predecessor, John Paul II. The key in this trip, the archbishop said, will be to listen to Benedict’s speeches, in their entirety.

“He is not a man of blah, blah, blah,” Archbishop Sambi said. “He’s a thinker, and before speaking, he thinks. And he prays a lot.”

As the archbishop spoke, on a recent weekday, workers were polishing the floors of the Vatican Embassy in preparation for the pope, who will stay there on the first three days.

On the pope’s 81st birthday, on April 16, he will say Mass in the embassy’s small chapel that morning with embassy staff and have a celebratory breakfast before heading to the White House.

Sambi, a gregarious Italian, is an old hand at hosting papal visits. He represented the Holy See in Jerusalem for seven years, and served before that in Indonesia, Cyprus and Burundi. He arrived in Washington in 2005, as the church was struggling to recover from the scandal over sexual abuse by priests and the nation was mired in a war in Iraq that the Vatican had opposed.

This is only the seventh country Benedict has visited since he was elected three years ago.

The timing, said Sambi, is intended to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the dioceses of New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Bardstown, Kentucky, the seat of the first inland diocese. It is also 200 years since the nation’s first Catholic diocese, Baltimore, was elevated to an archdiocese.

Although the pope is arriving in the midst of a presidential election, Sambi said, “I can assure you that the pope will not at all interfere with the electoral process. He will not meet with any of the candidates.”

But it is likely that Benedict will touch on issues germane to the election: poverty, the war in Iraq, abortion and euthanasia, gay marriage, environmental degradation and immigrants.

Some of those issues will probably arise in his address to the United Nations. Abortion is an expected topic when he meets with young Roman Catholics, some severely disabled, at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers.

Benedict has spoken before on how Catholic teaching applies to all of these issues.

Sambi said, “The pope will speak about the doctrine of the Church, which was established 2,000 years ago, much before there was any Democratic or Republican party of the United States.”

But the pope’s primary purpose is to tend to his flock.

The Catholic church in the United States is in flux. Demographic changes, along with the shortage of priests and financial pressures have led dioceses to close urban schools and parishes and open new ones in suburbs and exurbs.

Hispanic immigrants are flocking to parishes and the church is scrambling to meet their spiritual and material needs. Laypeople are stepping up to take on roles once handled by priests and nuns.

This is the first papal visit since Catholics in the United States suffered an abuse scandal that revealed thousands of victims, devastated families and parishes, demoralized priests, cost the church more than $2 billion so far and left five dioceses bankrupt.

There was speculation when an American trip was announced that the pope might travel to Boston, where the scandal erupted in 2002, but to do so would have put the scandal front and center.

Yet Sambi said he was confident that Benedict will speak of the scandal during the visit.

The subject could come up at a meeting and prayer service with American bishops in Washington. It was initially billed as private, but is now open to the media. The archbishop said, “If it would have been closed-door, can you imagine the fantasy of the journalists to invent what they don’t know? Better to be open.”

You can read more at the link. And I’m sure there will be lots more to come in the days ahead.