What happened
Pope Benedict XVI is coming to the U.S. for a six-day visit, starting Tuesday, in his first papal visit to the country. It is also the first papal visit since the U.S. church was roiled by a clergy sex abuse scandal. The pope will meet with President Bush, address the United Nations, celebrate his 81st birthday, and address crowds at baseball stadiums in New York and Washington, D.C. According to a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, U.S.-born Catholics are leaving the church in large numbers; Hispanic immigrants are keeping U.S. Catholic numbers relatively stable. (Los Angeles Times, free registration)

What the commentators said
Media-friendly Pope John Paul II is a “tough act to follow,” said Stephen Prothero in USA Today, especially as Pope Benedict XVI has “none of the telegenic ease of his charismatic predecessor.” A “rock star” pope like John Paul could get American Catholics, especially young ones, excited, despite his promotion of “dogmas they don’t believe in and rituals they do not understand.” The even more “traditionalist” Pope Benedict is coming to meet a U.S. church full of “modernist Catholics,” and the big question is whether he’s coming to “scold us,” as “God’s Rottweiler,” or to “hug us,” as “God’s Poodle.”

The best way to discern Pope Benedict’s message is “to listen carefully to what he says,” said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus in the New York Daily News. And there should be plenty of chances—Benedict may lack his predecessor’s star power, but there is clearly a strong “intensity of interest” in this “pastoral visit.” Maybe when U.S. voters say “our country is ‘on the wrong course,’” they are talking spiritually as well as politically. And the pope offers a sense of “continuity, of tradition, of moral and spiritual clarity in a time of confusion.”

If he aims to be a “true pastor” to his increasingly despondent U.S. flock, said the Rev. Emmett Coyne in The Washington Post (free registration), he needs to make his visit about “penance, not pomp.” Americans, “Catholic or not,” are “acutely aware” of the “plague of clerical sexual abuse” in the U.S. church. Pope Benedict can ignore the scandal or make it into his “Obama moment,” addressing it head-on. If he wants to stem the flow of defections among U.S. Catholics, he’ll chose the latter.