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EXP-POPE-U.S.-NYT 03-30

VATICAN SEES POPE’S VISIT AS CHANCE TO SOFTEN IMAGE

By LAURIE GOODSTEIN

(This article is part of TIMES EXPRESS. It is a condensed version of a story that will appear in tomorrow’s New York Times.)

c.2008 New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — 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.

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"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.

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 Bush at the White House and talk to Catholic educators at Catholic University of America in Washington, pray at ground zero in Lower Manhattan and address the United Nations.

The key to this trip, Sambi said, will be to listen to Benedict’s speeches in their entirety.

"He is not a man of blah, blah, blah," the archbishop said. "He’s a thinker, and before speaking, he thinks. And he prays a lot."

The pope will stay at the Vatican Embassy in Washington on the first three days of his visit. On the morning of April 16, his 81st birthday, the pope will say Mass in the embassy’s small chapel with embassy staff and have a celebratory breakfast before heading to the White House.

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."

The pope’s primary purpose is to tend to his flock. The Roman Catholic Church in the United States is in flux. Demographic changes, along with financial pressures and a shortage of priests, have led dioceses to close urban schools and parishes and open 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 to the United States since the abuse scandal revealed thousands of victims. The scandal has cost the church more than $2 billion so far, demoralized priests and left five dioceses bankrupt.

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