- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI has two schedules for his upcoming U.S. visit: A jampacked list of official events and an unofficial schedule of evening meetings, including a huge birthday party at the Italian Embassy starring world-famous tenor Placido Domingo.

The splashy April 16 party — in celebration of the pope turning 81 — is sponsored by all eight former and current U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican. Several hundred people are invited.

The pope — who will meet that afternoon with U.S. Catholic bishops at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast, is not expected to make the party’s 6:30 p.m. kickoff time.

In fact, he’s not even been officially invited, said Thomas P. Melady, ambassador to the Vatican from 1989 to 1993. But the papal nunciature on Massachusetts Avenue Northwest — where the pope will be spending the night — has been notified of the event in case he wishes to drop by. The embassy is on Whitehaven Street, within walking distance of the nunciature.

“It’s really not in his tradition to attend parties,” explained Mr. Melady, now senior diplomat in residence at the World Institute of Politics. “His happiest days were when he was a young priest and teaching at the seminary.”

But just in case, Mr. Domingo will be singing some of Benedict’s favorite songs. He, along with mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, will also be performing the following day during the Nationals Stadium Mass.

Several hundred people, including a wide range of local Catholics and Vice President Dick Cheney, have been invited. Many are hoping Benedict will show.

“I’ve known him for a number of years,” said American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Novak, also an invitee. “I’d love to see him.”

“We’ve been told he’s not coming, but I hope he is,” said Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute.

A spokeswoman for the Italian Embassy said she was not aware of the event, and Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican ambassador, could not be reached for comment.

But Raymond Flynn, ambassador to the Vatican during the Clinton administration, is attending. He knew the pope during the days when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He also said there will be several off-the-record gatherings with the pope during his six days in the country.

“That’s the way it always is when the pope comes,” he said. “There are private conversations and discussions with people here. I think they want to keep those meetings as private as they possibly can. They [the Vatican] will release an official schedule, but they’ll leave a lot out.”

Inquiries around the Catholic community seemed to bear this out. Robert George, a leading Catholic scholar at Princeton University, implied he’d be meeting privately with the pope in Washington but refused to divulge details.

The Rev. Dennis McManus, a consultant with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Benedict has “a full evening at the nunciature” planned for him after an April 17 meeting with interfaith leaders at the John Paul II Center near the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. He also would not divulge details.

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