When Benedict XVI comes to America this Tuesday for an historic first visit, it may feel like a homecoming for the German-born pope.
“The Christian church in America is still very vibrant,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a recent convert to Catholicism, said in an exclusive interview with FOX News. “I think some of the vibrancy we would do well to have in the Christian church in Europe.”
Religious belief has been on the wane in Europe for decades, according to some. “Even in the pews you’ll hear people saying, well, you can’t really be sure, can you, father, about the existence of God,” said the Rev. Hugh MacKenzie, pastor of the St. Magdalen Parish in London.
Although the Catholic Church in America is more vibrant than in Europe, many Americans are nonpracticing Catholics. This large group makes up "the inactive Catholic Church” as it is called by the Rev. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.
Pope Benedict's controversial solution is to encourage a return to Roman Catholic tradition, to help revive Catholic identity. As the pope sees it, even if his strategy leads to a smaller flock, it will be a stronger one.
Benedict, a quiet, scholarly man who became pope in 2005 at the age of 78, has surprised many with his passionate and outspoken advocacy of Christian belief, declaring that Europe forgets its religious roots at its peril.
“The pope is personally engaged,” Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, the pope’s foremost emissary, said. In a rare interview, which will air as part of a FOX News special, “Mission to America: Pope Benedict XVI,” on Sunday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. EDT, Bertone articulated Benedict’s view that “a Europe without God” is one that “risks its decline, almost its own drowning.”
Despite his scholarly demeanor, Benedict has not shied away from controversy. Statements he made during a 2006 speech on faith and reason at Germany’s Regensburg University were interpreted by many Muslims as an attack on Islam. Protests and violence erupted across the globe.
But Benedict did not back down.
“Pope Benedict has never said publicly that he regrets the consequences of his words,” said the Rev. Jonathan Morris, a vice-rector of the Legionaries of Christ seminary at the Vatican and a FOX News contributor. “Benedict knows exactly what he’s doing.”
The pope is expected to continue speaking out during his six-day U.S. tour, which will take him to Washington and New York. The war in Iraq will be high on his agenda when he meets with President Bush, according to National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
Bush, an evangelical Christian, has declared his deep respect for the pope, despite Benedict’s criticism of the war.
But it is unclear whether Benedict, during his visit, will address the most painful issue facing the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S.: sexual abuse by priests.
The Rev. Kenneth Lash, former pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Mendham, N.J., is an outspoken critic of how the church has dealt with the scandal, which revealed hundreds of instances of sexual abuse by priests that the church hierarchy often hushed up.
The Rev. Lash said he hopes the pope will not only discuss the issue, but will try to “gather the abused of this country and wash [their] feet ... in the sanctuary.”
Wherever he goes on this historic visit, the pope is expected to be greeted with large crowds and warm receptions. A Mass in Yankee Stadium on March 20 is expected to draw 80,000 people.
That’s a warmth likely to be returned. The Rev. Sirico and others say the pope admires both the openness and the spirited religious culture of the United States.
“What Pope Benedict really appreciates about the American experiment is that we are a religious nation,” Sirico said.