A man with a message

Pope Benedict XVI is paying his first papal visit to the United States, and many, many Americans -- Catholic and not -- are eager to hear what he has to say.


And they want him to say a lot .

There are many issues facing this country -- war, immigration, abortion, human rights -- that the pope can and should address. He will, judging by his itinerary: He is expected to deliver parts of his speeches in Spanish; he will pray at ground zero of the 9-11 attacks Sunday; and he will issue a much-anticipated speech before the United Nations on Friday.

He also will meet privately with President Bush, and with Benedict's opposition to the war in Iraq, the topic of discussion there is easy to guess. But the pope realizes the threat to freedom posed by terrorists worldwide, and liberals will be surprised to find how similar Benedict and Bush are ideologically on achieving peace.

Others anticipating the pope's arrival are keeping themselves busy by grinding their various axes. Some female Catholics think he's sexist. Gay activists gripe that he doesn't condone their lifestyle. To coincide with the pope's visit, lay teachers at 10 Catholic schools in the New York City area are striking for more pay. And of course there's that chillingly familiar elephant in the room: the deadly consequences of Roe v. Wade .

Many more are holding their breath to see precisely how he addresses America's clergy sex abuse scandal. It likely will be through an apology and an unambiguous condemnation. As Benedict left Rome early Tuesday for the United States, he expressed deep shame over the scandal in this country, and vowed to make sure nothing like this would happen again.

To understand Benedict and his message, first understand that he is not cut from the same cloth as his predecessor, the media-friendly and charismatic Pope John Paul II. John Paul, some may remember, was a trained actor. He fed off the energy of crowds and the spotlight.

But Benedict -- who turns 81 today -- is more reserved and introspective, and very intellectual. The diffidence sometimes seen in his people skills must not be confused with cold distance. The cardinal who once bore the sobriquet "God's Rottweiler" has shown himself to be a spiritual leader whose central principle is love.

Benedict recognizes and appreciates the United States' traditional inclusion of religion in public discourse. In Europe he battles declining Christian faith, but in this country -- despite its secular shortcomings -- he is heartened by Americans' collective faith life.

Benedict must not be viewed as a political figure, but as a man of God whose grounding in his faith empowers him to challenge political leaders to rule with moral reason.

Will Benedict conclude his U.S. visit by leaving behind a nation that is 100-percent spiritually united? No.

But he will leave us with much to ponder -- about love and hope and compassion toward others -- and about what we can do to further those ideas, and cultivate them more deeply among us.