- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

Washington National Opera officials hoped in vain that Pope Benedict XVI might “stop by” their birthday party in his honor at the Italian Embassy Wednesday night.

The “celebration in absentia” of the pontiff’s 81st birthday nonetheless drew about 600 guests eager to participate in his historic state visit. About an hour into the festivities, however, many of the VIPs, who included Sens. Bob Martinez, Patrick Leahy, Pat Roberts, Jack Reed andBob Casey and Reps. Dennis Kucinich and John Lewis, had departed the drinks-and-buffet-dinner event.

It didn’t help that WNO general director Placido Domingo, who was to be honored for participating in Thursday’s papal Mass, didn’t show up either because he was rehearsing “Tamerlano,” which opens April 30 at the Kennedy Center.

At least co-honoree and Mass participant Denyce Graves was present to sing “Happy Birthday” to Pope Benedict after words of welcome by Italian Ambassador Giovanni Castellanetaand former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See R. James “Jim” Nicholson, who joined previous U.S. envoys Corinne C. “Lindy” Boggs and Raymond L. Flynn on stage.

Mr. Nicholson spoke privately of his own relationship with the supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and dean of the College of Cardinals. “He is very mild mannered, humble and shy,” Mr. Nicholson said, noting that his own personal impression “totally belies” the “hard-edged image” others may have.

Indeed, Pope Benedict may be shy, but that wasn’t why he chose to dine quietly at the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See on Massachusetts Avenue instead of dropping by the WNO fete.

“There are two main reasons why the Holy Father would never have come here,” one diplomat said off the record. “First, it would have been a serious snub of the White House, which hosted its own dinner tonight to commemorate his visit — one that he did not attend. Second, the pope is the pope. Tomorrow he’ll be with his clergy and 45,000 of the faithful to celebrate Mass. He doesn’t do cocktail parties.”

Kevin Chaffee

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