VATICAN CITY — Yes, at least one rendition of ”Happy Birthday” and a formal celebration of Pope Benedict XVI’s 81st birthday April 16 are part of the program for the pope’s trip to the United States. More solemnly, but still personally, the schedule also includes a public acknowledgement April 19 of the third anniversary of his election as pope.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s communications czar, spent 45 minutes today going over the papal schedule with Vatican journalists and photographers, including most of the 70 media-folk who will be on the papal plane.
The theme for the visit, the major speeches and the plans for the liturgies were all reviewed before Father Lombardi played the video message the pope prepared for the trip.
On matters of substance, for example, the Jesuit suggested reporters prepare for the trip by reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which turns 60 years old this year and likely will be the central focus of Pope Benedict’s talk to the U.N. General Assembly.
But he also guaranteed the papal anniversaries will be marked. Pope Benedict will be the guest of honor at a “birthday luncheon” April 16 at the apostolic nunciature in Washington. The invitees include the 17 U.S. cardinals (although age and fraility may keep one or two away), the officers of the U.S. bishops’ conference and the papal entourage.
Father Lombardi did not mention a cake. And, unfortunately no one thought to ask.
Before the birthday lunch, the pope is expected to be greeted with a 21-gun salute — but Father Lombardi said that is part of “the rather serious” White House protocol for welcoming a foreign head of state, not a birthday honor.
Pope Benedict will be in New York on the April 19 anniversary of his election and will begin the day celebrating Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral with a congregation of priests and religious. Father Lombardi said the Mass will feature prayers for the universal church specifically to coincide with the papal anniversary. In addition, he said, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, will offer greetings to the pope in the name of Catholics around the world.
That same evening, the papal spokesman said, Pope Benedict will be treated to another chorus of “Happy Birthday” when he meets young people at St. Joseph’s Seminary.
On the curiosity page: Father Lombardi said the trip — with two 10-hour flights across the ocean and a 6-hour time difference between Rome and the East Coast — has raised questions about the exact dates of the papal trip. For people in the United States it is April 15-20, but for the Vatican and its keepers of papal statistics, the trip is April 15-21 since the pope is not expected to land at Rome’s Ciampino airport until 10:45 a.m. on the 21st.
If you look at the Vatican information about the trip, you will see that all the references are to an April 15-21 visit.