BALTIMORE – Pope Benedict XVI will travel to the United States for the first time as pontiff next year to meet with President Bush, address the United Nations and visit ground zero, a Vatican official told American bishops Monday.
The pope also will celebrate Mass at the new Nationals Park stadium and Yankee Stadium during the April 15-20 visit to Washington and New York, according to Archbishop Pietro Sambi, Vatican ambassador to the United States.
The announcement comes as the 67 million-member American church is grappling with a priest shortage and an often alienated flock and continues to recover from the clergy sex abuse crisis. American dioceses have paid more than $2 billion in settlements with victims since 1950.
“It’s a shot in the arm for the U.S. Catholic Church, which is enduring one of the most protracted crises in its history,” said Scott Appleby, a University of Notre Dame historian who specializes in religion. He said the Roman Catholic community in the United States “badly needs a renewed sense of its own vitality and its historic legacy in the country.”
The Archdiocese of Boston, where the abuse crisis erupted in 2002, and bishops from around the country had invited Benedict to visit. But Bishop William Skylstad, of Spokane, outgoing head of the bishops’ conference, said the Vatican limited the visit to two cities to “conserve (Benedict’s) energy.”
The visit coincides with the third anniversary of Benedict’s election to succeed Pope John Paul II on April 19, 2005.
John Paul’s five visits to the United States during his pontificate were major events. When he arrived at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1979, a school band welcomed him with the theme from “Rocky.” The late pontiff’s charisma and personal warmth attracted tens of thousands of people to his appearances.