Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The U.S. Visit of Pope Benedict XVI

The Pope's visit to the U.S. is unlike that of any other religious leader. It is more akin to the arrival of a head of state. Indeed, the pope is probably the only Christian clergyman who is a head of state, since the Vatican remains a self-contained country with its own diplomatic corps.

The Chicago Tribune had "A primer of pope's visit to U.S." on page 3 of the Sunday edition, complete with maps and photos that occupied a full half page. In their op-ed section "Perspective" they also featured articles reflecting on the state of the Catholic church and the work of this particular pontiff. It's interesting that in our secular age a religious leader can still command such attention from the media.

It will admittedly be a visit of mixed reception. From the start he lives in the shadow of his predecessor, who was undoubtedly the most popular pope of the modern era. On the news this morning someone quipped that at such papal appearances many came to "see" Pope John Paul, but they are coming to "hear" Pope Benedict. Yet to be fair his pontificate is still young.

Nevertheless, he comes to a church body that is restless and more than a bit disillusioned in many ways. The sex abuse scandals that rocked the church in past years still reverberate heavily, with more than one diocese finding itself in seeming financial collapse. As the one John Paul placed in charge of handling the crisis, I am sure there are those who will be critical of its yet unresolved issues.

And then there are those who will push the envelope of the hot button issues of women's ordination, gay rights, birth control, and marriage regulations. Benedict is certainly as conservative as John Paul, maybe more so. His reputation as the protector of doctrine under John Paul precedes him, and many realize that he will not be given to any real changes in church teachings. Their voices, which always dominate the airwaves and papers, will probably be smaller in the open when compared with the sheer size of the faithful who come to greet him.

As a Lutheran in a church body considerably smaller than the Roman church, one might be tempted to be a bit jealous of all the attention this receives. But to be honest, it's nice not to have the spotlight on us, for every time the media takes an interest, it's usually to showcase a crisis or a criticism. So I'll let Benedict take that heat for all of us :)

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