By Julie Asher
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) – When Pope Benedict XVI celebrates his first papal Mass in the United States, it will be a "familial" gathering at the apostolic nunciature in Washington, said the Vatican ambassador to the United States, Italian Archbishop Pietro Sambi.
The pontiff also will celebrate his 81st birthday that day, April 16.
Archbishop Sambi said the approximately 30 staff members at the nunciature are "all excited to have this morning" with the pope.
He also said he hopes the message U.S. Catholics get from the papal visit is "one of the things that the pope pronounced the first day after being elected pope: Don't be afraid. Jesus Christ takes away nothing from you, but he will enrich you."
Pope Benedict will visit Washington April 15-17 and New York April 18-20.
Aside from a meeting with President George W. Bush and a major U.N. address the pope will deliver April 18, the papal trip is first and foremost "a pastoral journey," said Archbishop Sambi.
The pontiff "comes to strengthen the faith, the hope and love of the Catholic Church in the United States," the archbishop said, adding that he hopes the pope's visit will "bring a new wind of Pentecost ... a new springtime" to the U.S. church.
But Pope Benedict also "will bring his friendship and his holy word to all the people of the United States," he added.
Archbishop Sambi, who smiles easily and has a warm, affable way about him, spoke about the papal trip with Catholic News Service in late February at the nunciature, where the pope will stay while he is in Washington. Preparations for the pontiff seemed to be well under way as workers cleaned and polished the floors.
Those who think the pope will have a message for Catholic voters because he is visiting during a presidential election year should remember "the pope is not a political but a religious leader," Archbishop Sambi said. "To America he will bring the voice and the love of Jesus Christ.
"If there is something that is an exclusive prerogative of the Americans, it is the choice of their leaders. And the foreigners should not interfere," the archbishop added.
Asked what the pope and Bush will discuss when they meet, he said, "If it's private, it's private."
A Feb. 15 statement from the White House press secretary's office said the two leaders will continue discussions begun during Bush's 2007 visit to the Vatican, including "advancing peace throughout the Middle East and other troubled regions, promoting interfaith understanding and strengthening human rights and freedom, especially religious liberty, around the world."
Asked about diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the U.S. in light of the church's criticism of Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq, Archbishop Sambi replied that "the deep conviction of the Holy See is that war must be always the last option. All other options have to be tried before starting a war. A war is always a sign of human failure in reaching an agreement.
"Peace is not a defeat for anybody but is a victory for the future," he added.
Bush will welcome the pope on the South Lawn of the White House at 10:30 a.m. April 16, then the two leaders will go inside to talk. It's only the second time in history that a pope has visited the White House; Pope John Paul II visited the White House in 1979.
After the meeting the pope will return to the nunciature for a special birthday lunch, with the U.S. cardinals and Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl among the guests in attendance.
Archbishop Sambi said the pope will find "a really alive Catholic Church" in the United States, something the nuncio has seen in his own travels around the country. One of his duties is to attend episcopal ordinations and installations of new U.S. bishops; he has been to 35 since he took the post in February 2006.
"I have found everywhere Catholics of excellent quality, youth, full of joy, of energy and of creativity," he said.
"Many good things are done in the Catholic Church in the United States," Archbishop Sambi said, but "as a good nuncio, I should say much more can be done to bring Jesus Christ to everybody who is thirsty for him, and to invite those who abandoned (the church) or (left because of) a decision of the church to return home."
"There is no church alive without a permanent evangelization," he continued. The church must "continuously give the word of God and the instrument of salvation," the sacraments, "to the faithful," he said.
Evangelization "is a very precise and clear mandate ... the last mandate of Jesus Christ to the apostles before the ascension into heaven," he said. "The church of today must continue for the human being of today ... the same mission of Jesus Christ."
During his visit the pope also will acknowledge the bicentennials of four archdioceses – New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Louisville, Ky., established as Bardstown, Ky. Their coats of arms will be displayed during the papal Mass at Yankee Stadium April 20.
"The church of America recalls its roots," Archbishop Sambi noted.
"But the pope comes also for accomplishing his mission entrusted to him by the Lord," he added. "It's written in the Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 22, (verse) 32: 'I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers.'"
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