Catholics keen to host pope

Pontiff may visit N.Y., and city archdiocese prays he stops here

May 13, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

Pope Benedict XVI could visit the United Nations as soon as next year and, if the pontiff's schedule allows, Baltimore's archbishop has laid down the welcome mat for him at the Basilica of the Assumption.

"There's always been that hope that he could come to Baltimore," said Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "Up until now, it was more of a distant hope. Now that he's accepted an invitation to come to New York, people's interest has intensified a little bit. People feel like maybe they're one step closer."

Cardinal William H. Keeler said he has sent a written invitation asking the pope to make a Baltimore detour during his New York visit. Though dates and a specific itinerary have not been established, Catholic News Service has reported that a U.N. trip is likely to take place next year.

The trip would be the pope's first to North America since his election in 2005 and - if Baltimore is on his itinerary - his first opportunity to tour the Basilica of the Assumption, the first cathedral constructed within what became the United States.

Keeler also invited Pope Benedict to tour the new Our Daily Bread Employment Center, which will be dedicated this month.

"I have written to him, and I have asked that he stop by Baltimore and look at our rededicated basilica and also at Our Daily Bread, so that both of them fit into the story," Keeler said.

Created in 1789, the Archdiocese of Baltimore is known as the premier see from which other major dioceses were formed. As a result, the basilica, which reopened in November after a two-year, $32 million restoration and renovation, was the site of many important events in American Catholic history, including critical meetings of American bishops during the 1800s.

"I think it's the perfect place to come," said the Rev. Joseph S. Rossi, professor of church history at Loyola College.

Although he said jokingly that no one was consulting him about the pope's schedule, Rossi sees a connection between support for human rights at the U.N. and religious freedom at the basilica.

He described the basilica as a physical representation of the uniquely American church envisioned by John Carroll, Baltimore's first bishop and archbishop, who supported the right of different faiths to worship freely. Likewise, Pope Benedict advocates reciprocity - the rights of Christians to practice in predominantly Muslim countries, as Muslims have been protected in the West.

While New York may be the most international of American cities, "there is no more symbolic city in America than Baltimore, as far as Catholic heritage," Rossi said. And the pope could round out a U.S. tour by acknowledging the growing Hispanic Catholic community with a stop in the South or West.

Rocco Palmo, an American correspondent for the London-based Catholic weekly The Tablet who runs the blog Whispers in the Loggia, gave Baltimore a better-than-even shot at landing a spot on the pope's American itinerary.

The pontiff has made fewer public appearances than his predecessor, which reflects a different personal style - not just a difference in age, Palmo said. According to the Vatican Web site, Pope Benedict has traveled to Turkey, Germany, Spain and Poland since his election in 2005. On Wednesday, he journeyed to Brazil for a meeting of bishops from Latin America and the Caribbean - an intensive trip for someone who turned 80 last month.

The pope might be waiting to see how the Latin American trip goes before deciding on a schedule for his U.N. trip, Keeler said.

"I think that's the key factor here," the cardinal said.

"When Pope Paul VI came to New York in 1965, he was on the continent for all of 11 hours," Palmo said. "You could get away with that in those days. After John Paul II, you can't get away with that.

"I don't think he'd fly nine hours to St. Patrick's Cathedral and get back on the plane and go back."

Another Vatican observer was less optimistic.

"I really have no idea, although the fact that John Paul II did both Washington and Baltimore might suggest that Benedict XVI would more likely go into papally unvisited territory," wrote George Weigel, author of God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, in an e-mail.

On April 26, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said the pope had agreed during a private audience to make his first trip to American soil.

Keeler first invited Pope Benedict to travel to Baltimore after his 2005 election and then followed up after hearing of the New York plan.

"Obviously, I think the basilica would welcome the opportunity if the pope came here," said Mark J. Potter, the executive director of the Basilica Historic Trust.

Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to travel to Maryland, and he also visited while he was a cardinal. Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli came to the basilica in the 1930s before he was elected Pope Pius XII, Potter said.

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