BALTIMORE – Pope Benedict XVI will travel to the United States for the first time as pontiff next year to meet with President Bush, address the United Nations and visit ground zero, a Vatican official told American bishops Monday.

The pope also will celebrate Mass at the new Nationals Park stadium and Yankee Stadium during the April 15-20 visit to Washington and New York, according to Archbishop Pietro Sambi, Vatican ambassador to the United States.

The announcement comes as the 67 million-member American church is grappling with a priest shortage and an often alienated flock, and is still recovering from the clergy sex abuse crisis. American dioceses have paid more than $2 billion in settlements with victims since 1950.

“It’s a shot in the arm for the U.S. Catholic Church which is enduring one of the most protracted crises in its history,” said Scott Appleby, a University of Notre Dame historian who specializes in religion. He said the Catholic community in the United States “badly needs a renewed sense of its own vitality and its historic legacy in the country.”

Benedict has dedicated his pontificate to fighting secularism and strengthening Catholic faith, and his visit reflects those priorities.

Benedict will convene separate national meetings with Roman Catholic priests, Catholic university presidents and diocesan religious educators, and leaders of other religious groups.

Traditional American Catholics have long complained that Catholic universities have lost their religious identity.

The Archdiocese of Boston, where the abuse crisis erupted in 2002, and bishops from around the country had invited Benedict to visit. But Bishop William Skylstad, head of the bishops’ conference, said the Vatican limited the visit to two cities to “conserve (Benedict’s) energy.”

The visit coincides with the third anniversary of Benedict’s election to succeed Pope John Paul II on April 19, 2005.

John Paul’s five visits to the United States during his pontificate were major events. When he arrived at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1979, a school band welcomed him with the theme from “Rocky.” The late pontiff’s charisma and personal warmth attracted tens of thousands of people to his appearances and buoyed the American church.

Benedict, a theologian, spent more than two decades as the Vatican’s chief orthodoxy watchdog before becoming pope, earning a reputation – considered unfair by his supporters – as a dour enforcer of Catholic teaching.

“I don’t think he is going to make the sort of impact John Paul did. Benedict can’t do it and doesn’t want to do it,” said James Hitchcock, a Catholic historian from St. Louis University. “I think it’s a very different kind of appeal.”

Benedict will also be in the United States during a presidential election year, and his public events could inadvertently become public relations vehicles for candidates or political parties.

Benedict’s pilgrimage to the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York is meant to show “solidarity with those who have died, with their families and with all those who wish an end of violence and in the search of peace,” Sambi said.

However, the site also has become linked in the public mind with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

Giuliani, a Catholic, has been married three times and supports abortion rights, and St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke has said he would deny Holy Communion to the candidate.

Chris Duncan, chairman of the political science department at the University of Dayton, a Marianist school in Ohio, said the ground zero visit could hurt Giuliani’s relations with the Republican Party’s important conservative Christian base by “calling specific attention to the fact that he’s living well outside of the faith.”

The pope’s visit will begin with an April 16 reception with Bush at the White House, followed the next day by Mass at Nationals Park and separate meetings with Catholic educators and leaders of other faiths.

Bush met the pope for the first time in June, at the Vatican. The president used that occasion to defend his humanitarian record to the pope, who expressed concern about Iraq.

“President and Mrs. Bush are honored to welcome His Holiness to the White House next April,” said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for President Bush.

On April 18, the pope will address the United Nations, then meet with priests and members of religious orders the next day. On April 20, he will visit ground zero and lead the Yankee Stadium Mass before leaving the country.

Sambi announced the plan at the start of a three-day meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. On Tuesday, Skylstad will release a statement on Iraq pushing U.S. leaders to do more to end violence in the country.

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