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A Blogger's Guide for the Pope's U.S. Visit
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A Blogger's Guide for the Pope's U.S. Visit

ALISON STEWART, host:

Hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to catch a glimpse of him. President Bush will meet him in the Oval Office. Kelly Clarkson will serenade him. And religious leaders from all over the country will pay tribute to him as they've already done in video messages like this one.

(Soundbite of video message)

Unidentified Man: God bless you, Pope Benedict, from the Archdiocese of Chicago.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Pope Benedict XVI is coming to America, his first trip here as Pope. He'll arrive at Andrews Air Force Base tomorrow night and President Bush will meet him on the tarmac. He'll be in D.C. for two days of events, and then head to New York Friday where he'll speak at the UN, make an historic visit to a Jewish synagogue, give a Mass Saturday at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and another one on Sunday at Yankee Stadium. Whew.

If that we're enough, the Pontiff will also celebrate his 81st birthday during this visit. Here to talk about what we can expect from this event-filled week of papal goings-on is Rocco Palmo. He writes a blog called Whispers in the Loggia about all things Catholic. He joins me now on the line from the NPR mother ship in Washington. Hi, Rocco.

Mr. ROCCO PALMO (Blogger, Whispers in the Loggia): What's going on, Rachel? Good morning.

MARTIN: Good morning.

Mr. PALMO: Happy Monday.

MARTIN: Happy Monday to you. So, as a blogger who's been following the Catholic Church for a long time, you think about this stuff, you write about it a lot. This is like the Super Bowl for you, right?

Mr. PALMO: Super Bowl, Olympics, presidential election, well, that's actually - that actually happens in Rome, the Conclave. But, yeah, it's basically everything rolled into one, and especially because after John Paul II, Benedict the XIV hasn't traveled so much. So this is probably the only time we're going to see him here in the States as Pope.

MARTIN: So, the Pope is using this trip to introduce himself to America. There's a new survey out by U.S. bishops that says eight out of ten Catholics are pleased with Pope Benedict's leadership. Does that jive with how you survey the American Catholic population right now, Rocco?

Mr. PALMO: Well, it's funny because, again, of course, before his election he was Joseph Ratzinger, the Panzer Cardinal, or "Cardinal No," the head of the Vatican's Doctrine Office. So looking at things now, I think that people are - you know, it's really interesting to see - having changed into the white, he's going to mark also the third anniversary of his election this week, on Saturday in New York.

But he's got the - people want to hear him out, you know, are kind of giving him almost a second chance kind of thing. And so even if there's not - you know, there are very few, in the American church, negative voices. There are some protesters and everything, but I think people are just really intrigued to hear what he has to say, you know?

They know about the whole Prada shoes things, that he kind of dresses in the old traditional stuff more than John Paul did, but they really don't know what he said, because again, his speeches are very long, but they are also very fluid. So it's going to be - and he's got some great stuff planned for the week, apparently, in terms of what he's going to say.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk a little about that. He's starting off with a meeting with President Bush. This is only the second time a Pope has been to Washington. Now Bush and Pope Benedict the XIV share common ground on the issue of abortion, but they have tended to diverge when it comes to Iraq. John Paul II spoke out against the war. Benedict has reflected that same stance against the war. Is he expected to address Iraq on this trip?

Mr. PALMO: I think it will probably come up in the context of the persecution of the Christian community there. Back in November, Benedict made the first cardinal in the 3000-year history of what's now Iraq, the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad. And usually the Pope doesn't offer his reasons. He doesn't have to, of course, of why he made - of why he makes cardinals.

But he said, specifically at the ceremony in which the Chaldean Patriarch was made a cardinal, he said, this is for the suffering Christian community in Iraq. And he didn't go so far as to use the term "useless slaughter," that John Paul II used. But still, just the fact - the guy basically became the star of the week after that, the Chaldean Patriarch. And St. Peter's erupted when he made that statement, when the Pope made that statement, in this huge round of applause and it went on for - I think it was the longest ovation of the day.

MARTIN: I want to talk about the Catholic sex abuse crisis here in the United States. It was triggered in 2002 and we've seen the Church in America suffer for years since, declining membership, hundreds of millions of dollars it's had to pay out in settlements, pain for victims and clergy, and laity.

And Boston, which was really the genesis of the crisis, Boston came out and wanted the Pope to come visit Boston on this trip. He is not doing that. They are protesting that. But how is he going to address this controversial issue?

Mr. PALMO: I think it's going to be a multi-tack strategy, because obviously, it's not just one audience of the American Church or the American people. On Wednesday night, the first - after the reception at the White House Wednesday morning, the first major internal speech the Pope has is to the American bishops.

Now, it's already been called "showdown at the D.C. corral," just because this is the first time as pope Benedict has spoken to the entire American hierarchy, about 300 bishops. So I think he's going to be pretty - it seems he's going to be pretty frank with his impressions on what's been helpful in the aftermath of the abuse crisis and what hasn't been helpful. And I think by that, you're looking at the legal tactics, the - this whole kind of focus on PR as opposed to, even, due process.

Because what has happened since '02, one of the kind of hidden side effects of it is that the relationship between bishops and priests has largely been frayed, simply because priests feel they've been hung out to dry for PR purposes and for the - so the bishops could get the liability off of themselves. So I think he's kind of going to say, you've got to be better to your priests, because without them, you're really going to have a tough time reaching people.

MARTIN: So the bishops might get a scolding.

Mr. PALMO: I think so. If anything, it's kind of funny. Looking at all the events, press coverage going into this week, this scolding speech was supposed to be Thursday night's talk to the presidents of the Catholic universities at Catholic University here. But the thing is they're not bound to the Pope by a vow of obedience.

The Pope can't revoke - can't yank out a college university president the way he could - or scold them - the way he could the bishop who's bound to him. And again, the bishops are the ones who handle policy. So and as Cardinal Ratzinger, he actually oversaw the Vatican's response to sex abuse after 2002. And if you listen to the people who - the victims' advocates who went over there, they said he was more sympathetic and understanding of the situation, sometimes, than most of the American bishops.

MARTIN: We've seen kind of conflicting reports, Rocco, on whether or not he's going to meet with sex abuse victims. Do you know? Have you heard anything?

Mr. PALMO: It seems - from the indication I get - you know, I was telling people, you know, there were a lot of people who were upset when the public schedule was released that it wasn't going to happen. But that kind of shows a lack of understanding of how the Vatican works. If anything, it will take place in private, simply to keep it from being a PR spectacle, because you know, we all know if it were on the public schedule, everyone would have wanted to cover it.

All the victims would've - all the talking points would have been out there well in advance. But what this does is it respects the privacy of the victims to - kind of say they were in the meeting afterward. Or if they weren't there, to - or if they were there and don't want their names known, to not have their names known.

So, I think what we'll see is probably, sometime over the week, if it happens, you will see either a statement or even a transcript of the meeting. Benedict often does Q&A sessions with different groups. And I think if there's one group everyone's who looking for that Q&A this week, who knows about these Q&A sessions, it's the victims here.

MARTIN: And Rocco, what do American Catholics want to see from Benedict? And what impression does he want to make?

Mr. PALMO: Well, again, you know, it's - we're talking about a population of 70 million. I'll take the first part first. Everyone wants to see something different, kind of. It's interesting. When you have someone who, to a lot of people, is a blank slate, they're putting a lot of - more hopes and expectations on him than he can possibly handle.

So you have that element of, you know, I think, if anything, he's going to say, look, the Church will never be able to forget, and if anything, has learned much from the last six years. But it's time to, you know, remember one, the goodness in the church, and two, that the work that the church has continued and will continue. What he wants to say, I think, he's looking to bring a message of hope. He gave - for the first time ever, the Vatican released a YouTube message last week, with the Pope on it.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. PALMO: Yeah, and again - the Vatican moves in centuries, as they say. And the thing was it took 13 - the video was only released 13 hours after it was promised. But what he wants to do - it was a five-minute long message, nothing glamorous, no flashy. It looked like an actual YouTube message, because it was actually grainy almost.

It looked like it came out of the 1930s, in terms of the setting of the Pope's office. And he said, I'm coming to pray with you and bring you Christ's word of life. And as somebody said, anyone expecting that he's going to do a fact-finding mission here, don't expect that. He's got a message. The speeches are already canned.

There's a cardinal who later this week at a birthday lunch for the Pope has to give a toast. That toast had to be approved by the Vatican, even though no cameras will be in the room. So this is really scripted down to the last degree. It's been a year in the planning, effectively.

MARTIN: Well, I know this is going to be an exciting week for you. You're reuniting with a lot of friends, people who cover the church. Everyone's going to be gathered together in D.C. and in New York. Rocco, have a good time this week.

Mr. PALMO: Thank you, Rachel. Thank you. So good hearing your voice.

MARTIN: Rocco Palmo edits the blog whispersintheloggia.com about all things Catholic.

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