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"He's something like a longtime, very wise pastor. He just happens to have the whole church as his parish."

WASHINGTON (CNS) - For Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, perhaps the highlight of Pope Benedict XVI's three-day visit to the nation's capital will be when they stand near the altar for the beginning of the papal Mass at the new Nationals Park April 17.

He said he looked forward to looking out at the more than 45,000 people in the stadium, and telling the pope, "These people welcome you."

The archbishop smiled and added, "To be able to introduce the church of Washington to the pope, and say, 'This is us, Holy Father, we've all come out to see you.'"

Archbishop Wuerl remembers the thrill he felt as a seminarian in Rome in the early 1960s when he gathered with classmates along a road around dawn, to see Pope Paul VI leaving for his historic visit to the Holy Land.

Now, he will get to ride with Pope Benedict in the popemobile in Washington.

"There are still moments when you greet the pope, and you are overcome, because he is Peter," Archbishop Wuerl said in an interview with the Catholic Standard, Washington's archdiocesan newspaper.

Archbishop Wuerl said that over the years he has had many interactions with Pope Benedict, who was elected pope three years ago after having led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1981 as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He described the pope as a man with a brilliant intellect, and a man known for his personal warmth, kindness and understanding.

Catholics who see the pope in Washington and New York, he said, "are going to very much like him."

"They'll be pleased at what they see and hear," he said. "In a way, he's something like a longtime, very wise pastor. He just happens to have the whole church as his parish. I think people will see that. They'll say, 'He's a pastor.'"

Pope Benedict, he added, "is the teaching pope. That's what he does. Even the way he's structured the visit -- at every one of the events, he will deliver a message. He will have a message for every group he meets with. It seems like every time he speaks, he teaches."

Archbishop Wuerl said people can expect two main things from the papal visit.

"He is going to encourage us, because he realizes that so many of the Catholic faithful are working very hard to live out their faith in a heavily secular culture," he said.

"He's also going to challenge us to be living witnesses to what we believe," he added.

The challenge, Archbishop Wuerl said, is for today's Catholics to be Jesus' disciples in today's world. "People have to see the faith in us, so they would want to be a part of the faith," he said.

The pope will confirm people in their faith, the archbishop said, adding that the pontiff won't be in the U.S. to solve political problems. "But he will be here to change hearts, and if you change enough hearts, you can change a great deal in society," he said.

Archbishop Wuerl said he also looked forward to what Pope Benedict will see when he looks out at the faithful gathered at Nationals Park and along the popemobile routes.

"If you stand at any altar in a parish throughout this archdiocese, what you see when you look out at the congregation is a slice of the world," he said.

The Archdiocese of Washington has nearly 600,000 Catholics, and each weekend, Masses are celebrated in about two dozen different languages at its 140 parishes and 10 pastoral missions. Some parishioners have ancestors who arrived in Maryland with the first colonists in 1634, and others are newly arrived immigrants from nearly every continent.

At the papal Mass, the congregation, the liturgical ministers, the readers, singers and gift bearers will reflect that diversity, Archbishop Wuerl said.

"We want to make sure he sees the true face of the church of the Archdiocese of Washington. It's a beautiful face, a face that includes the young and old, the rich and poor, and just about every ethnic and cultural background you can identify," he said. "We're all part of the same faith family."

The archbishop said he thinks Pope Benedict will be greeted with "an outpouring of affection." Archbishop Wuerl remembered the words of a man from India, a non-Catholic, who said he stood among the crowds to see Pope Paul VI because he "is a holy man."

People will be cheering the man in white riding in the popemobile because he "is an icon, a living symbol of the head of the church," said Archbishop Wuerl.

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Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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