But, in addition to what will interest news media from around the world, other moments in the pope's visit will hold even greater importance for some of us here in the United States.
The seminarians whom I teach at Immaculate Conception Seminary in South Orange will, no doubt, regard the most moving event during Pope Benedict's trip to be his meeting with them and many other seminarians from around the United States-a meeting scheduled to take place just north of New York City at Dunwoodie, the seminary for the Archdiocese of New York.
Still others, namely baseball fans, will probably feel the most moving event of the entire papal visit will be when Benedict presides at a Mass at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx on April 20. What Yankee fan's heart will not be moved, what true baseball fan will not choke back a tear, as they behold that heady historical mixture of the successor to Saint Peter presiding in the place where the great Joe DiMaggio once fielded fly balls.
However, speaking as a theologian, the most significant event of this pope's visit to the United States will occur when the pope meets with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C.
Let me explain.
The high regard and special respect that Catholic Christians show toward the Bishop of Rome has its theological foundation in several New Testament passages that refer to Peter the apostle. There are no less than 189 references to Peter in the New Testament. Some of these references can be found in the Gospels where they suggest Peter's role among the 12 first disciples whom Jesus called the core group, the signal group, that is, the group whose number, matching the 12 tribes of Israel, signaled Jesus' intention to create the "new Israel," which is the Church.
There are still other references to Peter that occur in the Acts of the Apostles, the earliest history of the Christian movement, or which occur in the epistles of the New Testament, where they witness to Peter's important role in the growth of the Church after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Catholics regard these passages as important not simply because they witness to historic events in the early life of the Church, but because they witness to a ministry that is essential to the Church of Christ.
Some people point out that, in the Gospels, peculiar prominence is given to Peter among the disciples of Jesus. For example, when at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, He recruits disciples, the call of Peter is featured first (Mk 1.16; Mt 4.18, Lk 5.10). Moreover, whenever the names of "the Twelve" are listed, Peter's name always appears at the top of the list (Mk 3.13-19, Mt 10.1-4, Lk 6.12-16).
Another notable highlighting of Peter in the Gospel narrative is the fact that Peter often is portrayed as taking the initiative in important dialogues with Jesus (Mk 11.21, Mt 18.21, Lk 12.41, Jn 13.6). At other times Peter is portrayed acting as spokesman for the Twelve (Mk 10.28, 8.27-29, Jn 6.66-68). Moreover, there are several times when Jesus singles out Peter from among the Twelve for particularly pointed reference, as in Lk 5.1-11, when Jesus makes Peter the prime example of an evangelist or "fisher of souls," or in John 21.15-17 where Jesus makes Peter the prime example of a shepherd of God's people.
Of course, the most famous example of the prominence given to Peter in the Gospel narratives, and the passage most often cited in Catholic theology as the foundation of the so-called "petrine" ministry, is Mt 16.18-19: "I say to you: you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Indeed, the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) quoted both Lk 22 and Mt 16 as foundations for its teachings regarding papal primacy and papal infallibility.
As for references to Peter after the death and resurrection of Jesus, here, too, Peter has a pre-eminent status among the disciples of Christ. Paul asserts that Peter was the first to see the risen Christ (1 Cor 15.5). In Acts, after the account of the ascension of Jesus, Peter is portrayed as exercising the principal leadership role among the disciples in Jerusalem. It is Peter who suggests getting a replacement for Judas (Ac 1.15-26), Peter who preaches at Pentecost (Ac 2.14-41), Peter who speaks before the Sanhedrin in defense of himself and John (Ac 4.8-12), Peter who judges Ananias and Sapphira (Ac 5.1-11).
Moreover, Acts shows Peter as a prominent figure-not only in the Jerusalem community, but well known to many other Christian communities. In Acts 9.31-32 we are told "the Church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria... was built up... and Peter went here and there among them all."
Another even more impressive witness to the stature of Peter among the earliest Christian communities occurs in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. I Cor 1.12 makes it clear that, while Peter, unlike Paul and Apollos, had never preached at Corinth, nevertheless a group at Corinth who identified themselves precisely with Peter's historic witness to Christ. Even more to be learned by a comparison of Peter's relationship to Paul. After his conversion, Paul went up to Jerusalem specifically to meet with Peter and spent two weeks with him (Gal 1.18). Paul later compares himself to Peter, "I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles just as Peter had been to the Jews" (Gal 2.7).
This biblical background will now allow us to appreciate the theological significance of Benedict XVI's meeting with the U.S. bishops.
The most significant moment in this pope's visit to the United States will not be the gathering of world diplomats at the United Nations. Neither will it be the welcome at the White House, nor will it be the moment when Yankee Stadium becomes a cathedral, which was a holy place for baseball fans long before popes visited it. Rather it will be his address to the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops. This is because these bishops, archbishops, cardinals will have the humility not just to listen to the pope, but even more importantly these powerful pastors will reverently heed the words of Pope Benedict XVI and obey him.
(Editor's note: Father Lawrence B. Porter, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange. His most recent book A Guide to the Church: Its Origin and Nature, Its Mission and Ministries, published by St. Paul's (Alba House), Staten Island, NY (Web site: www.stpauls.us.)