The Pope discovers America, America discovers the Pope
Fr Pawel Rozpiatkowski
The visit of the Holy Father Benedict XVI to the United States on 15-20 April 2008 was unique in many ways. The Pope visited a superpower, which influenced the fates of the world, regions and particular countries. He visited the Church regaining its strength after the wounds of the sin that the world had learnt about six years ago. He spoke to the evil-torn world in the United Nations. He was at the place, which became a symbol of terrorism and unimaginable suffering on 11 September 2001. How will the meeting of Pope Benedict XVI and President George Bush influence the politics of the world power? Will the Pope give new vital strength to the American Church, which is being restored? Will the fates of millions who fear hunger every day, who hide before bombs drop and who have been put in fetters of regimes change even to a small extent?
‘Co-workers the truth’
The millions who observed the pilgrimage asked these questions. It all began aboard the plane when Benedict XVI came to the journalists representing world media one hour after the plane had taken off. He answered three questions. But reporters did not remember his three answers. The agencies mainly focused on the clergy sexual abuse scandal that had wounded the Church in America so seriously. The Holy Father clearly said that he was not going to avoid that question, which was according to his motto ‘Co-workers of the truth.’ He did not dismiss the matter with phrases of compassion, harm, restitution but he clearly stated that he was ashamed of what had happened. ‘We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry.’ ‘Pedophilia is absolutely incompatible with the priesthood’, the Pope said aboard Boeing 777, which Alitalia called ‘Shepherd One’, certainly by analogy to the name of the American President’s plane ‘Air Force One’.
President sounded ‘exactly Catholic’, the Pope sounded ‘exactly American’
‘He is a spiritual leader of the world’, said President George W. Bush, the political world leader, welcoming the Pope at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland near Washington where Benedict XVI’s plane landed. Since 2006 President Bush has hosted over 300 heads of state at the White House and he welcomed them all at the White House. But he made an exception for the Holy Father and waited for him, with his wife Laura and daughter Jenna, at the airport. Benedict XVI and President George Bush differ in several fundamental matters, the most important ones being the war in Iraq and death sentence. The official press release stated that those topics had also been discussed but the leaders focused on what they shared in common. The President sounded ‘exactly Catholic’ and the Pope sounded ‘exactly American’, said Archbishop of Denver Charles Joseph Chaput after the meeting. The formulation was both effective and true. The American President lacked words to emphasize the importance of the Holy Father and the Pope, who knew the United States, stressed the greatness of America and the virtue of the American nation. In front of the White House President Bush spoke what his country needed and expected of the Holy Father, ‘you will find in America people whose hearts are open to your message of hope.’ He added that ‘we need your message that all human life is sacred.’ He stressed that America was a religious country and its society was built on moral foundations. But he pointed to moral relativism, which lurked behind the door. Benedict XVI stressed the importance of religion for the state and the Americans’ love for freedom. The Pope is in favour of the American model of the relationship between the state and various religions. During the private conversation in the Oval Room at the White House both leaders talked about terrorism and fight against it, which could not be a ruthless war because one should respect human rights. Another topic of their talk was the situation in the Near East, especially in the Holy land. They also mentioned Iraq and the difficult situation of the Christian community in this country.
What is the Church in America like?
The visit of the Holy Father to the United States is first of all a religious event. The official reason for the pilgrimage was the 200th anniversary of the elevation of the country’s first diocese, Baltimore, to a metropolitan Archdiocese. St Peter’s Successor went overseas to ‘strengthen brothers in faith’ in accordance with his calling. What is the Church in America like? Every fifth US citizen is a Catholic, exactly 22%, i.e. 67 million. The number of Catholics has increased recently, mainly because of the immigrants from Mexico and other South American countries. Special sociological research was conducted before the papal visit: 77% of the respondents are proud of being Catholic, 75% like the pastoral service of their bishops. One could see a 14% increase compared with the research made in 2004. Currently, there is a 5% increase of those who like the activities of Benedict XVI. 54% of people regard themselves as practicing Catholics. However, only every third believer attends Sunday Mass. The situation of the Sacrament of Matrimony is alarming.
What did the Pope tell the Church in the United States?
Benedict XVI said that one could not be satisfied with the statistics because the influence of secularisation could clearly be seen in America. He warned the bishops against this threat in the biggest American sanctuary, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on 16 April. He spoke about the dissonance between faith and life and warned people that faith was not given for ever. ‘Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behaviour contrary to Catholic moral teaching, or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?’, the Pope asked rhetorically.
Lord, renew the face of the earth!
The next day, on 17 April, the Holy Father also spoke about the threats to the participants of the Mass at Nationals Stadium in Washington, ‘Who can deny that the present moment is a crossroads, not only for the Church in America but also for society as a whole? It is a time of great promise, as we see the human family in many ways drawing closer together and becoming ever more interdependent. Yet at the same time we see clear signs of a disturbing breakdown in the very foundations of society: signs of alienation, anger and polarization on the part of many of our contemporaries; increased violence; a weakening of the moral sense; a coarsening of social relations; and a growing forgetfulness of Christ and God.’ ‘What is the answer? – Prayer. Similarly to the calling of John Paul II in Victory Square in Warsaw in 1979, ‘Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth!, the verse ‘Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth!’ (cf. Ps 104:30) was chosen for the liturgy in Washington.
Being the first friend of the poor
The words about secularisation were not a threat. They were only a diagnosis since on the basis of the truth one can build hope and this was the motto of the pilgrimage: ‘Christ is our hope.’ The words directed to the bishops, priests and laymen gave hope. This has happened since the beginning of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. The message of hope is his sign. On 19 April he spoke to the clergy in St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, ‘So let us lift our gaze upward! And with great humility and confidence, let us ask the Spirit to enable us each day to grow in the holiness that will make us living stones in the temple which he is even now raising up in the midst of our world… Dear brothers and sisters, in the finest traditions of the Church in this country, may you also be the first friend of the poor, the homeless, the stranger, the sick and all who suffer. Act as beacons of hope, casting the light of Christ upon the world, and encouraging young people to discover the beauty of a life given completely to the Lord and his Church.’
Young people must walk in the light of Christ
25, 000 young people and seminarians gathered on 19 April in Saint Joseph Seminary, Yonkers, New York, to meet Benedict XVI, who warned them against manipulation of truth and false freedom. The truth is ‘a discovery of the One who never fails us; the One whom we can always trust.’ The Pope encouraged young people to walk in the light of Christ on the way of forgiveness, reconciliation, humility, joy and peace. The Pope appealed to them, ‘Look about you with Christ’s eyes, listen with his ears, feel and think with his heart and mind.’
God, knowledge, freedom
On the third day of his pilgrimage Benedict XVI met the representatives of Catholic universities and educational centres. He told the educators that the mission of a Catholic educational centre was not only simple transmission of knowledge as some people thought. ‘While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will. Subsequently we observe, with distress, the notion of freedom being distorted. Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in – a participation in Being itself. Hence authentic freedom can never be attained by turning away from God.’
Encouraging to dialogue
It is not easy to describe all meetings of Benedict XVI during his pilgrimage to the United States. One should at least, chronologically, mention the meeting with the representatives of other religions in Washington, when he gave a message about dialogue the ultimate aim of which is the truth, and his strong words during the ecumenical service that divisions and abandoning traditions weaken the strength of Christian testimony in the world. There was also a meeting with the Jewish community in Washington and then a visit to Park East Synagogue in New York.
Message to the world
In New York, in the United Nations Headquarters, Benedict XVI spoke to the world. He again stressed the significance of human rights that any political and religious authority cannot change or limit. Referring to the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the Holy Father said that ‘the document was the outcome of a convergence of different religious and cultural traditions.’ ‘Human rights are increasingly being presented as the common language and the ethical substratum of international relations. ’At the same time, the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights all serve as guarantees safeguarding human dignity.’ ‘They are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations. Removing human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception.’
The Pope in Ground Zero
On 20 April, the last day of his visit to the U.S.A, the Pope visited Ground Zero, the place of the terrorists’ attack on 11 September 2001, where there were the towers of the World Trade Center. The representatives of the New York firemen and police, the survivors and the families of the victims joined Benedict XVI in the meaningful prayerful reflection.
Bidding farewell to America
The last meeting of the Holy Father in the American land was held at a baseball stadium in New York where almost 60,000 faithful turned up. The Pope celebrated Mass in the Yankee Stadium, thanking God for the elevation of the first country’s Archdiocese of Baltimore 200 years ago. America bade farewell to Benedict XVI at Kennedy Airport. The Holy Father returned to the Vatican, leaving American people and the whole world the message that ‘Christ is our hope.’
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Few have understood this as clearly as the late Pope John Paul II. In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in his native Poland and in eastern Europe, he reminded us that history shows, time and again, that “in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation”, and a democracy without values can lose its very soul (cf. Centesimus Annus, 46).
Benedict XVI’s address at the White House, 16 April 2008.
The world needs this witness! Who can deny that the present moment is a crossroads, not only for the Church in America but also for society as a whole? It is a time of great promise, as we see the human family in many ways drawing closer together and becoming ever more interdependent. Yet at the same time we see clear signs of a disturbing breakdown in the very foundations of society: signs of alienation, anger and polarization on the part of many of our contemporaries; increased violence; a weakening of the moral sense; a coarsening of social relations; and a growing forgetfulness of Christ and God.
Benedict XVI’s homily in Nationals Stadium in Washington, 17 April 2008.
We can only move forward if we turn our gaze together to Christ!
Benedict XVI’s homily in St Patrick’s Cathedral, 19 April 2008.
God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world:
peace in the hearts of all men and women
and peace among the nations of the earth.
Turn to your way of love
those whose hearts and minds
are consumed with hatred.
Benedict XVI, praying at Ground Zero, New York, 20 April 2008.