Pope Benedict XVI will make his first visit as the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church to the United States from 15-20 April. The six-day visit, which, significantly, the Pope has called an 'apostolic journey', will begin in Washington DC, and then proceed to New York.
The cities Benedict will visit are headed by two staunchly pro-Vatican American prelates, Archbishop Donald Wuerl in Washington and Cardinal Edward Egan in New York. Both are strong supporters of the Holy Father in a country where the hierarchy is almost evenly divided between the orthodox and modernists.
The trip is historic, especially since the Holy Father will address the United Nations General Assembly and meet with President Bush.
Benedict XVI will visit the White House and the UN as the Vatican's Head of State, and accordingly all of the diplomatic rituals will be observed. What uniquely distinguishes Benedict's visit, however, is the fact that he is also the spiritual leader of the world's 1.13 billion Catholics, and a significant moral compass for the world's political and cultural issues.
Colleges and universities
After meeting the American President, Benedict will meet the American Catholic Bishops in Washington, then speak to the heads of the more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States and superintendents from the 195 Catholic dioceses who have been invited to an address by the Pope on the importance of Catholic education.
He is expected to confirm the application of John Paul II's 1990 Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which set out the ground rules for Catholic higher education institutions.
The address will be delivered at the Catholic University of America, the only college or university in the United States operated directly by the bishops.
Some of the biggest points for dissent in the American Catholic Church focus on the role and responsibility of Catholic universities in the proper formation of religious values for young Catholics.
There is nothing accidental in the papal visit to the university, so we should expect something rather definitive from the Holy Father when he speaks there.
On a related issue, there has been some controversy in the US this year regarding the presence of anti-Catholic politicians making whistle stops at Catholic universities and colleges for electioneering purposes, where they expound on their secular political theories. When Benedict XVI visits Catholic University in April, there will be no question whatsoever that he is presenting an important Catholic position that he expects to be emulated on all levels of academic education.
We have experienced many similar statements by the Holy Father in respect to the importance of Catholic education and the need to adhere to sound principles of Catholic teaching. The papal presence will show the priority the Pope is giving to Catholic educational institutions remaining faithful to their Catholic roots and purpose.
The United States in particular presents a perfect opportunity for the Holy Father to initiate a new campaign towards educational orthodoxy at all Catholic institutions.
The social challenge presented by such issues as birth control, the right to life for the unborn, euthanasia and the role of Catholics in public life are all critical topics of discussion for the re-evangelisation of parts of an increasingly secularised Church, and to bolster deeper convictions among Catholic youth.
In his role as leader in the Catholic Church, Benedict knows well the great significance he holds for young people everywhere. Increasingly, since the pontificate of John Paul II, the papacy has been offering a counter-cultural theological and social challenge to the youth of the world.
This challenge addresses them at an intellectual level to accept the Catholic principles of moral and social justice. Benedict knows that the spes ecclesiae, or the hope of the Church, rests squarely on the task of correct and proper evangelisation and education of the Church's younger members.
In contrast to John Paul II, Benedict does not offer his background experiences of sports and outdoor living, but rather demonstrates a quiet and intellectual capacity for learning that makes him - perhaps surprisingly for some - a revered and respected figure for many young Catholics.
Not only is his demeanour often low key and unassuming, but his pastoral teachings take on the context of valuable life lessons, integrated with a strong understanding of authentic spirituality. In so doing, Benedict XVI has struck a harmonious chord with his younger followers.
Challenge for youth
With his visit to the Catholic University in Washington, Benedict XVI will present a challenge not only to educators to return to practising solidly orthodox Catholicism, but will offer a life challenge to the Church's youth which will call them to an intellectual and a spiritual affirmation of the Church's core beliefs. Without a doubt, the visit to Catholic University will prove to be a significant moment in the papal itinerary for the purpose of prompting a positive response from young Catholics everywhere.
The Pope will meet leaders of other faiths in both Washington and New York City, address the United Nations on 18 April, and meet young people on 19 April, before celebrating a Mass at Yankee Stadium in New York on 20 April.
This visit will be a prelude to his visit to Australia in July, for World Youth Day.