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90 Catholics from Tampa Bay to see pope

He's known as a quiet scholar.

Pope Benedict XVI lets words define him and prefers to deflect the spotlight, unlike his predecessor, the charismatic Pope John Paul II, a former actor who reveled in the power of image.

The two popes are a study in contrasting styles, and, to a lesser degree, of substance. In the past, Pope Benedict has focused more on firming up church doctrine than new interpretations. On Tuesday, he visits the United States, home to more than 69-million Roman Catholics, for the first time. Because of his age — he turns 81 Wednesday — some speculate it also may be his last.

Catholics from across the country will travel to Washington, D.C., and New York to see the pope celebrate Mass in the most American of settings, two baseball stadiums. Among the crowds: 90 Tampa Bay area Catholics who scored tickets — and the chance to see their spiritual leader in action.

• • •

All it takes is a few minutes inside Sandra Flake's Plant City home to know she's intense about her faith.

A crucifix hangs by the front door. (She has five in her home, including one above her bed.) On one wall is an Our Lady of Mount Carmel clock. A book about Pope John Paul II rests on a coffee table. Her granddaughter, dressed in white for her first Communion, smiles from a framed photo. And in the sunroom, a scarf of Our Lady of Guadalupe hangs from a wall.

Flake, 58, is a devout Catholic today, but wasn't always.

A Louisiana Cajun, she was raised Catholic. But marriage at age 19 to a Methodist, a move to Indiana and the demands of raising three kids caused her to drift. A neighbor invited her to a Baptist church revival, where she recommitted her life to Christ. In 1990, she returned to Catholicism. She now attends St. Clement Church in Plant City.

A few weeks ago, Flake's prayers were answered: She got two tickets to see the pope in New York. She'll go with her son, who lives there.

Flake has asked to sit close to the front of the stadium. A genetic disorder has left her nearly blind, but she calls it a blessing. "When you don't see well, you see other things."

As for the pope, "I might just see a little dot, but it'll be marvelous just being there. I loved John Paul. I love this man, too."

• • •

Arthur Kirk says his first encounter with a pope in Rome in 1975 was like being at a concert with thousands of other fans. This time, he'll be in a room with only a few hundred.

"This will be obviously much more intimate, and I'm looking forward to it," said Kirk, head of Saint Leo University in Pasco County for 11 years.

Kirk, 62, is among 200 Catholic college and university presidents invited to an address by the pope at Catholic University of America in Washington. He's been told little about the format.

"I expect he'll give us all a bit of a stern talk," he said. "I know the Vatican has been concerned about Catholic colleges and universities drifting too far from the teachings of the church. I know that's a tough line for all of us to walk, with academic freedom and the search for truth and our desire to be forums for unpopular points of view."

Kirk said Saint Leo, which does not require its faculty, staff or 14,000 students to be Catholic, is less conservative than the church but still true to the faith.

Even with the anticipated admonishing, Kirk is excited. "You just feel closer to God by being in the pope's presence."

• • •

Leila Souza says her life is steeped in the miraculous. She tells of how at age 8, she fell off a balcony and nearly drowned in a water tank. A guardian angel, she says, saved her.

"I remember I was going to heaven. My mother was calling out, 'Don't die.' This man came and said, 'She's not dead.' He turned me on my side. A few minutes later, he disappeared."

Souza saw Pope John Paul II twice, once in Brazil and once in San Francisco. The pontiff once touched her mother on the head and blessed her.

"He looked just like an angel," Souza recalled.

Souza and her mother are among 20 members from the local Portuguese community going to see Pope Benedict in New York. For Souza, it's more than a chance to see another pope: It will fulfill a birthday wish for her mom, who turned 73 April 4.

"God's going to be there, Christ is going to be there,'' Souza said. "Angels are going to be there."

• • •

Some have called Pope Benedict, a German native, "God's Rottweiler" for his enforcement of traditional Catholic doctrine. But Karen Underwood lovingly calls him a "German shepherd."

She's German, so that makes this pope extra special.

Underwood, a part-time youth minister at Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor, began trying in January to get tickets for the visit. Her two kids, ages 16 and 12, had wanted to go see him at World Youth Day in Australia but couldn't. This was their chance.

The family will be at the Mass in Yankee Stadium. "I'm just in heaven," Underwood said. "Just being in his presence is going to be moving. I'm expecting to cry."

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

90 Catholics from Tampa Bay to see pope 04/13/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2008 9:10am]

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