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Sunday, April 13, 2008

"Catholics making trek to see Pope"

Local seminarians, lay people will journey to the East Coast

By Tom Kisken
Sunday, April 13, 2008

It was a dream lottery for the future priests standing anxiously in a circle at St. John's Seminary. Up for grabs was a chance to see the pope.

"I was praying Please, please someone pick my name,' " said Kelly Yalmadau, a third-year seminarian who comes from the state of Yap, a series of islands in the Western Pacific and part of the Federated States of Micronesia.

When his name came up, Yalmadau started jumping. He hasn't stopped. He'll be one of about 16 people associated with the Camarillo seminary and a handful of others from Ventura County who will journey to New York and Washington, D.C., this week for Pope Benedict XVI's first papal visit to the United States.

Yalmadau, who is 27, doesn't know if he'll be one of thousands of people straining to see the pope, or if he'll be lucky enough to get close. He thinks he may be the first person from Yap, certainly the first of the about 500 people on his tiny home island, to be in the presence of the man Catholics call the Holy Father.

"I don't know how to express it," he said, sitting with other anxious seminarians for a lunch of chili dogs and fried rice. "It's really, really big. Just to be able to see the pope and people of the same faith come together in one place."

Joseph Alois Ratzinger, who will celebrate his 81st birthday during his visit, was elected pope three years ago, succeeding the hugely popular Pope John Paul II. As a cardinal, he was known as the Vatican's enforcer for people or groups who strayed from Catholic teachings. As pope, he has spoken out against Islamic extremism, embraced Latin Mass and presented himself as a defender of truth and tradition.

"He's an intellectual and an academic," said Thomas Dillon, president of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, who met the pope when he was a cardinal. "He loves to think and he loves to discuss. He wants to help others come to better understand the truth. He's also warm and kind."

Dillon, who twice met Pope John Paul II, will be among the 200 leaders of Catholic colleges clustered at The Catholic University of America in Washington to listen to Benedict. A story in The Washington Post suggested Catholic leaders are concerned colleges are straying from faith teachings with offenses ranging from a campus rally for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who supports abortion rights, to a University of Notre Dame student presentation of "The Vagina Monologues," which includes discussions of infidelity and homosexuality.

Dillon doesn't anticipate a laundry list of complaints; instead, he thinks the pope will exhort universities to live up to Catholic tradition and the belief in certain absolute truths.

"We live in an age of skepticism. We're living in an age where universities are saying there is no such thing as truth," said Dillon, who leads a school that embraces orthodoxy. "I think our college has been holding up the kind of things he's calling for."

The pope's itinerary includes an address to the United Nations, a visit to a synagogue in New York, a trip to the ground zero site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and Masses in two baseball stadiums.

He'll be greeted Tuesday by President Bush at Andrews Air Force Base and the next day will be at a welcoming ceremony at the south lawn of the White House. David Bender, a Ventura lawyer, will be there.

"Anytime you get an opportunity to be in the presence of the pope, it's a special honor. That's a lifetime experience," said Bender, who was invited by a friend and is a member of a Catholics for Bush political group. He's also a board trustee for Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, Ind.

A Pew Forum poll suggests about 30 percent of all Americans say they don't know enough about the pope to offer an opinion on him. Bender sees Benedict as a historic pope serving at a time when the church is at a crossroads.

Upset about "The Vagina Monologues" at Notre Dame, his alma matter, and other Catholic institutions distancing themselves from church teachings, Bender sees the pope's message as "an affirmation of what it means to be Catholic."

Whatever the theme, any visit from the leader of the world's estimated 1.13 billion Catholics generates excitement.

Sabrina Rush, a junior at Ventura High School, learned on her 17th birthday she's going to New York with her uncle, the Rev. Eliseo Gonzalez, a priest at the St. Augustine priory in Oxnard. She'll go shopping, see the Statue of Liberty and take in a Broadway play.

And, her uncle happened to mention, he has tickets to see the pope at Yankee Stadium.

"Everything came at me so fast I didn't have time to process it," said Sabrina, who had to go through a background security check. "I'm really going."

It will be a whirlwind trip for the seminarians from St. John's. They leave on Friday and return on Sunday. In between, they'll attend a rally and prayer service in New York for youths and seminarians. Some at the seminary worried about the dizzying pace and that their time at the prayer event would be limited. Not Kelly Yalmadau.

"It's the pope," he said. "Leave everything. Even if it's an hour, if it's three seconds. Go."

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