WASHINGTON -- The challenges confronting the Catholic Church in America are many: an aging membership, a declining priesthood, a sex abuse scandal that has rattled faith in the hierarchy. Roughly one-third of Americans who were raised Catholic have left the church, and those who remain are as divided over its teachings on abortion, homosexuality and other issues as the population at large.
Still, as Pope Benedict XVI makes his first papal visit to the United States, he will find a church in the midst of renewal. Immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Asia are bringing distinctive new forms of devotion. Catholics who were raised after the Second Vatican Council brought sweeping changes to worship are exploring the Latin Mass and other traditional practices. And in parishes struggling with the priest shortage, laypeople now are helping perform pastoral duties.
The largest church in America remains influential both at home -- helping, for example, to frame the public debate on abortion, euthanasia and other issues -- and abroad, as a major financial supporter of the Vatican and its activities worldwide.
All of which has fostered a community of 67.5 million that the writer and scholar George Weigel credits with "the most vital and vibrant Catholicism in the developed world."
"There is simply no comparison between the vitality of Catholic life in America and the life-support situation of the Catholic Church in Europe," says Weigel, a Baltimore native and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "Benedict XVI, like John Paul II, recognizes that for all of its difficulties, some of which are quite severe, that the Catholic Church in the United States comes perhaps closest to that vision of a culturally and socially engaged Catholicism than any place else in the world."
Pope Benedict has long spoken admiringly of the United States, where faith claims a central role in public life.
"From the dawn of the republic," he said this year, "America has been ... a nation which values the role of religious belief in ensuring a vibrant and ethically sound democratic order."
"The pope knows America very well," says Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien. "He'll quote Washington. He'll quote Jefferson or Adams in ways that sometimes we forget that we do have this deep-rooted religious sense to us: the fact that all men are endowed with inalienable rights by their creator.
"The American experiment in dialogue, in tolerance, in collaboration among various religions is something the Europeans haven't had to face up to now," O'Brien said. "Now they've got to find new ways of dealing with new challenges. Whereas this is something where I think the Vatican sees America as being not only fortunate but being in a position to help the rest of the world."
During Masses at Nationals Park and Yankee Stadium, as well as in his meetings with bishops, Catholic educators and youth, the pope is expected to encourage American Catholics with what the Vatican-based journalist John Allen has dubbed "affirmative orthodoxy" -- "a strong defense of classic Catholic doctrine and practice, pitched in the most positive fashion possible."
As the first pope to visit the United States since the abuse scandal erupted in 2002, Pope Benedict will address the issue many Catholics believe is the most challenging to the American church.
A 2004 report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found more than 10,667 complaints of abuse by 4,392 priests between 1950 and 2002. The American church has paid out more than $2 billion in civil settlements, a figure that is expected to grow. Six dioceses have sought bankruptcy protection.
"The scandal has weakened us considerably," O'Brien says. "Not just financially, but primarily in the people's trust. ...
"The sense I get is that on the parish level, people still love their priest, they trust their priest. But there's just a cloud out there about the rest of the clergy and leadership of the church that it's going to take time to dispel."
Pope Benedict said yesterday that he was "deeply ashamed" of the abuse and would do "everything possible to heal this wound." The Vatican says he will raise the subject again Saturday, at a Mass for clergy in New York.
For some, that might not be enough. Some Catholics have expressed dismay that Pope Benedict is not visiting Boston, the epicenter of the scandal.
"It seems pretty clear he's avoiding the scandal," says Dan Bartley, president of Voice of the Faithful. The organization, which came together in Boston in the wake of the scandal to push for greater transparency and lay involvement in the management of the church, took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times last week calling on the pope to meet with victims and oust bishops who reassigned abusers.
"The abuse crisis was just a symptom," Bartley says. "At its heart is this whole culture of clerical secrecy. ... I would like to see not just the pope, but in connection with the bishops, start to take a more honest look, an honest assessment of the church."
Pope Benedict's visit will be occasion for demonstrations from a variety of groups, including gay Catholics, those who favor the ordination of women, and those pushing for a loosening of church restrictions on contraception and abortion.
"The church mirrors the rest of the country," says the Rev. James Martin, acting publisher of the Jesuit magazine America. "It's a church that is facing some serious internal division between liberals and conservatives, frankly."
Another way the church mirrors the country is in its demographics. Latinos now make up 29 percent of the church, according to a survey released this year by the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life, and the proportion is expected to grow.
The influx is nothing new to a church that assimilated Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries. Author Amy Welborn sees the newcomers bringing new energy.
"Hispanic populations do tend to bring with them a real interest in devotion," she says. She mentioned street processions as an example of a practice that "used to be a part of American Catholic life even for other immigrant groups but have largely died out in the last 40 years" -- until a revival by newer arrivals.
"That is definitely revitalizing, where folks are open to it," she says.
Another area of growth is in traditional forms of worship. Jeff and Kristin Elliott, a couple from Halethorpe, attend the Latin Mass at St. Alphonsus in Baltimore. The liturgy is familiar to those who attended Mass before Vatican II: The priest faces the tabernacle, not the congregation, as he celebrates the Eucharist.
"It's not that it's in Latin, and it's not that there's a choir or there's Gregorian chant," says Jeff Eliott, 39. "It's not any one of those things by itself. It's like all of it together says something, and for me, I get a clearer picture of what the church teaches."
Martin sees a generation exploring Catholicism as they wish.
"Not having been forced to participate in a lot of these practices -- Rosary, adoration, novenas -- they feel free to accept them or reject them," he says. "Younger Catholics look at, say, pilgrimages or novenas and say, 'That's pretty cool.' Because it's different, it's distinctive, it's exotic."
In America, Martin sees a church "continually being reborn." In Catholic churches across the nation last month, tens of thousands of adults were baptized into the faith.
"You look at the church in the wake of a horrific crisis and scandal that I think would have destroyed most other institutions," he says. "You have these huge waves of thoughtful, intelligent people who are still joining. It's a real sign for me of the Holy Spirit at work, still inviting people into the church."