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Originally published Sunday, April 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Americans eager for pope's visit even as U.S. church sees changes

In his visit this month to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI will find an American flock wrestling with what it means to be Roman Catholic...

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — In his visit this month to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI will find an American flock wrestling with what it means to be Roman Catholic.

The younger generation considers religion important, but doesn't equate faith with going to church. Many lay people want a greater say in how their parishes operate, yet today's seminarians hope to restore the traditional role and authority of priests.

Catholic colleges and universities are trying to balance their religious identity with free expression, catching grief from liberals and conservatives in the process.

Immigrants are filling the pews, while whites are leaving them. Nearly one-third of U.S. adult Catholics are Hispanic, and they worry about being considered a separate, ethnic church.

Despite these divisions, Catholics across the spectrum of belief have been energized by the pope's trip. The man who was once responsible for enforcing adherence to Catholic doctrine isn't likely to do much scolding. Instead, he's expected to recognize the relative vibrance of the American church, while emphasizing core Catholic values: the reality of absolute truth, the relationship between faith and reason, love for the faith.

"I think he's going to come in and try to inspire. As pope, he's really taken the positive track on a lot of issues. I don't think there's any reason he wouldn't continue to do so now," said Dennis Doyle, a theologian at the University of Dayton, a Marianist school in Ohio.

In a nation founded by Protestants, Catholics comprise nearly one-quarter of the population. Catholic America is the biggest donor to the Vatican. The U.S. also is home to more than 250 Catholic colleges and universities.

There's an added urgency to this visit. While it will be Benedict's first trip to the country as pope — he made five visits when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — it may also be his last.

He turns 81 during his April 15-20 visit to Washington and New York, and he has less interest in travel than his globe-trotting predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Americans don't know much about Benedict. But surveys conducted ahead of his visit found that three-quarters of U.S. Catholics view him favorably. They are clamoring to see him.

"I get 30 to 40 requests a day to get into the speech he's going to give at Catholic University," said the Rev. David O'Connell, president of Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C.

They have less enthusiasm for religious observance.

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About one-third of the more than 64 million U.S. Catholics never attend Mass, and about one-quarter attend only a few times a year, according to a 2007 study by the Center for Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. A majority never go to confession or go less than once a year.

The generational split is stark: About half of Catholics born before the 1960s say they attend Mass at least once a week, compared to only 10 percent of those born since the 1980s.

One of Benedict's core goals is strengthening Catholic culture to combat these trends, stressing the importance of religious life and of observing Holy Communion and other sacraments.

Mormons endorse their new leader

SALT LAKE CITY — Faithful Mormons stood by the thousands with upraised hands Saturday, officially installing their first new leader in 13 years.

Thomas S. Monson took over The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in February after the Jan. 27 death of Gordon B. Hinckley, but the faith traditionally calls for a sustaining vote by members in a ceremony known as the solemn assembly.

Each church organization took its turn — from its top leaders down to youth groups — standing when called to cast votes in the packed conference center, which holds 21,000 people. The ceremony has been practiced since 1880, when John Taylor was named president of the church.

Mormons last held an assembly in April 1995, when Hinckley was named president.

Monson, 80, is the youngest church president since 1973 and the 16th president of the American-born denomination, which claims 13 million members worldwide.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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