More than 10,000 priests from 91 countries will gather in Rome today through Friday in what is thought to be the largest ever meeting of Catholic clergy.
The three-day program of events -- mostly eucharistic, as you'd expect -- marks the close of the Year of Priests declared by Pope Benedict XVI with the object of fostering internal renewal.
It's not clear what the gathering is for, exactly, beyond the usual "deepening communion with the Holy See". Nor is it as international as it may look: at least a third of the priests will be Italians (3,500 have confirmed their attendance).
But given the way the image of the Catholic priest (at least in the eyes of the non-Catholic world) has plummeted this past year, it could turn out to be an immense opportunity for the successor of Peter to send out some new signals.
I recently gave an interview to the flagship BBC documentary program Panorama about Pope Benedict XVI's role in the clerical sex abuse crisis. They were rushing to get it finished in time to go out this week, because of the expectation that on Thursday Pope Benedict would be making a major announcement on the issue. (As it happens, the schedulers changed their mind, and the program, presented by Fergal Keane, will be broadcast later in the year).
If the Pope is going to be a major statement, it has hardly been trailed from the rooftops. But then, the Vatican communications office doesn't often go in for "curtain-raising". So watch this space.
It's impossible to imagine that the Pope will simply ignore the issue when the priests gather in St Peter's Square Thursday evening for what is described in the program as "testimonies and music, dialogue with Benedict XVI and Eucharistic adoration and benediction". How can he address history's largest gathering of priests after a year in which the clerical sex abuse crisis has raged, and stay silent? It would be deeply disappointing - not least to priests on the frontline of public suspicion and hostility.
But if he does address it, will it be a groundbreaking statement that goes beyond his powerful Lenten letter to the Irish Church, or stay within its confines? Will it be a largely spiritual speech, developing some of the thoughts that he has recently let slip -- that the sin is within the Church, that the "hostility" of the media is an opportunity for self-purification, and so on?
Or will he, dramatically, announce a new global policy on the Church's handling of clerical sex abuse, one which in effect extends the Anglo-Saxon model -- statutory handing-over of accusations to police and social services -- to the whole Church? I have heard that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been working on such a new policy.
Universal guidelines are not easy to impose, because of the immense variety of juridical and political contexts in which the Church operates worldwide -- including totalitarian or failed states. There was a case not long ago of a Kenyan woman complaining that the Church in her country had passed her allegations to the police, who had failed to act (or needed bribing to do so); the scandal, for her, was not that the bishop had covered up by failing to alert the police, but that he had shirked his responsibility precisely by handing the matter over to the police. What is seen as responsible action in one part of the world is seen as irresponsible buck-passing in another.
But Pope Benedict may have decided that the advantages of a universal "Anglo-Saxon" model for the handling of clerical sex abuse outweigh the disadvantages -- and that, in effect, he has no alternative. He may also have decided that such a policy is the only way of putting an end to the clericalist culture of omertà exemplified recently by the views of the pre-2004 head of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos. (The Congregation's new head, the Brazilian Franciscan cardinal Claúdio Hummes, has signalled a very different approach).
The Pope must know that the "keep-it-in-the-family" response to clerical sex abuse is not an outmoded attitude in some parts of the Church -- not least Poland, which is the next place where the crisis is likely to erupt on a scale similar to Ireland; and that only by imposing statutory reporting to civil authorities can it be avoided.
Or perhaps the forces against a radical new policy are too strong and the canonical obstacles too great. Perhaps Pope Benedict will tell the priests some compelling and beautiful things about internal renewal and anchoring their lives in fidelity to Christ, while steering clear of new policies and guidelines.
Vediamo, as they say in Rome.