WASHINGTON (AFP) — Washington laid on a grandiose welcome Tuesday for a visit by Pope Benedict XVI, who is aiming to renew the faith of American Catholics but also to touch on sensitive topics such as the Iraq war and predator priests.
A specially chartered Alitalia plane dubbed "Shepherd One" left Rome early Tuesday for Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, where the pope will be met by President George W. Bush in what the White House called an "unprecedented" gesture.
The official welcoming ceremony for Benedict will take place on Wednesday -- the pope's 81st birthday -- at the White House, where he will be given a 21-gun salute in front of a crowd of between 9,000 and 12,000.
Benedict will hold a mass for 48,000 in Washington Thursday before going to New York to visit the scene of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and holding another mass for 60,000 at New York Yankee Stadium.
Posters announcing Benedict's first papal visit to North America since he was elected in 2005 -- and the first since John Paul II stopped in St Louis in 1999 -- draped Washington buses.
Banners on street posts waved in the spring breeze along boulevards lined with blossoming cherry trees that Benedict will take in the Popemobile and official motorcades.
"This visit is an opportunity for the Catholic faithful throughout the country to be renewed in our faith," Archbishop of Washington Donald Wuerl told reporters inside the new baseball stadium where the pontiff will celebrate mass on Thursday.
Before sunrise Monday, workers began erecting the altar and laying protective covering on the playing field.
"When the mass starts, I think we are going to recognize that we have been successful in taking this venue and making it a holy place, a sacred space. Nationals' Stadium will become a church, if only for one day," Wuerl said.
The stadium gates will open nearly five hours early, to allow the thousands of worshippers to go through stringent security checks.
On Monday, secret service agents staged a dress rehearsal for the mass -- with one agent in white vestments playing the pope, said Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the archdiocese of Washington.
During his three days in the US capital, the pontiff will also pray with US bishops and meet with leaders of other faiths and Catholic educators. In New York, he will follow in the footsteps of Paul VI and John Paul II and address the UN General Assembly.
Benedict is widely expected to make a plea for world peace, with some Vatican watchers predicting he will directly mention the war in Iraq.
"I think the centerpiece (of his UN speech) will be the pursuit of peace," said Chester Gillis of Georgetown University's theology department.
"But I would be surprised if he doesn't allude to Iraq directly and maybe even make a veiled warning about incursions ... to say pro-active military activities are not very welcome," he said.
At New York's St Patrick's Cathedral, Benedict will address the issue of pedophile priests and the bishops accused by victim support groups of covering up for them. He is not expected to meet with victims of the abuse that has left the US church financially strapped and morally battered.
"Although the survivors may want a meeting, this is a visit to all Americans," said Monsignor Batholomew Smith, who assisted one of the cardinal electors at the conclave in April 2005 at which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope following the death of John Paul II.
"Events may not be huge in scale but they are broad in nature. This is a pope with huge intellectual horsepower, who pays great attention to people, even if he is less of a media star than John Paul II," Smith said.
"Benedict has a high understanding of the situation here, and having come up through the curia, he knows what his aides are trying to filter out" when they brief him on the US church and its flock of 70 million, he told AFP.
"But rather than berate the bishops about someone's pet issue -- and heaven knows there are a few issues -- I'm sure he will hold up a goal and remind the bishops how they should behave in the current situation."
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