Three Minnesota Catholic college presidents will be among the 230 who have been invited to a speech the pope will give Thursday at Catholic University of America in Washington.
"We need his guidance and insights and direction," said the Rev. Dennis Dease, president of the University of St. Thomas. Andrea J. Lee from the College of St. Catherine and Brother Dietrich Reinhart from St. John's University in Collegeville also will attend.
Dease said he hopes Pope Benedict uses the speech to recognize the contributions of those working in Catholic education, though some have speculated that the pope might chastise Catholic college and university presidents for allowing speakers and presentations on campuses that contradict Catholic teachings.
A number of Catholic colleges, for instance, have hosted candidates and graduation speakers who favor abortion rights; other campuses, including the University of Notre Dame, have allowed performances of such works as "The Vagina Monologues."
"You hear a lot of people say that he's coming to America to scold us, but I don't think he is," Reinhart said. "I think that he's coming here to encourage us."
The gathering allows Catholic college presidents and superintendents to show their respect for the pope and to demonstrate the collective strength of Catholic education in the United States, Lee told the Catholic Spirit, the official publication of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
If the pope does scold the college presidents, Lee hopes there will be an opportunity for dialogue with him.
"I think the Holy Father ... respects the strength of the American church and its ministries, and because he's an academic, understands the nature of the academic institution," she told the Catholic Spirit. "While some questions may be appropriate, I think by and large the collective array of Catholic colleges in the United States are very serious about their Catholic identity."
Outside of academia, however, the church is at a critical crossroads. A shortage of priests has resulted in nearly 800 small parishes closing during the past decade nationwide. Others are getting by only by sharing priests. According to church statistics, more than 3,000 of the country's parishes have no resident pastor.
And although 24 percent of Americans identify themselves as Roman Catholic, church participation is dropping, with increasing numbers going to mass only on high holy days. And in a recent survey, 45 percent of American Catholics said they never attend confession.
The Catholic church in Minnesota faces its own challenges. Archbishop John Nienstedt last week wrapped up months of visiting parishes and schools throughout the Twin Cities to speak to pastors and parish administrators about the challenges he has observed. Among them: the size and diversity of the archdiocese, limited personnel and financial resources, and the need for a long-term plan for parishes.
"Can we keep all the parishes we have now going today into the next 10 years? I don't think so," Nienstedt said. "That's a real question in my mind."
Since Pope Benedict's election in 2005, observers have been watching closely for signs of changes in the church. Any such changes are likely to be gradual, Dease said.
"Certainly he's more scholarly than Pope John Paul II, who was more pastoral," Dease said. "But the Roman Catholic Church has always stressed continuity. Changes come slowly, and I think that is a wise strategy."
One of the more visible changes is the pope's passion for education. His background as a former college professor has the local academics excited about his speech.
"The fact that he comes from an academic background has us very anxious to hear what he is going to say," Lee said. "It's hard not to be impressed by his intellect."
Reinhart had an audience with the pope at the Vatican just two weeks ago when the pontiff was presented with a copy of the first volume of the handwritten St. John's Bible.
"He's a very quiet person," Reinhart said. "I'm going to be curious to see how he handles speaking in front of the audience [of college presidents], because he struck me as the kind of person who is most comfortable sitting down to have a conversation with one person."
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report. Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392