Triumphalism, as we all know, is a very bad thing. On the other hand, defeatism is worse. In any event, I am persuaded that the apostolic visit just completed was a triumph. As is probably evident from my earlier postings on the visit, as well as some of my comments on EWTN, I was not sure about that before the visit got underway, nor was I at all sure during the first days in Washington.
The theme that Benedict chose for the visit was “Christ Our Hope.” That determinedly Christocentric focus was sustained through these days. Permit me a brief word on the several events. The first was not on the official program. It was the news conference on the plane coming over. The first question, not surprisingly, was about the sex abuse crisis. Benedict’s response might be described in other contexts as a preemptive strike. By addressing the question so directly and candidly, and then doing that again in following days, he decisively put to rest all the speculation about how he would handle the matter, or whether he would touch it at all.
Of particular importance in this connection was the meeting with the five victims of priestly sexual abuse. That occasion was reminiscent of John Paul the Great’s meeting in jail with the man who tried to assassinate him in 1981. The authenticity of the encounter, Benedict’s listening, holding hands with the five one by one, and praying with them was powerful. This was movingly confirmed by the victims who spoke about the meeting afterward.
This encounter was in dramatic contrast with many statements on the subject by the American episcopacy since 2002, statements that too often were defensive in nature, statements of the “mistakes were made” variety. Again and again, it seemed that bishops here had legal and financial considerations in mind when they spoke on the scandal, and were seeking their own rehabilitation in the eyes of the public by talking incessantly about what they are now doing to “protect the children.” In fact, they have done a great deal on the last score, making the Catholic Church in this country probably the safest institution for children in the entire country.
What had been missing from the years of public statements was a clear articulation of the reality that is at the heart of being the Churchsin, repentance, and the grace of forgiveness. That was the essential note struck by Benedict. This does not mean, as some of our bishops have suggested, that we can now put the scandal behind us. But Benedict has pointed the way through the difficulties that lie ahead.
A moment of historic importance was the magnificent reception at the White House the morning after the pope’s arrival. The administration pulled out all the stops in a symbolic act of closure in the country’s tangled history of anti-Catholicismor at least of suspicion about the place of Catholicism in our common life. Beyond that, it was a striking response to the larger question of what someone has called the naked public squarepublic life devoid of religion and religiously grounded moral discernment. In the concluding Mass in Yankee Stadium, Benedict spoke of the “false dichotomy” between Christian faith and the public square, as he did also in his address at the United Nations in New York. His several statements underscored the powerful symbolism of the White House reception. The image of the president and the pope on the South Lawn, along with what each said, deserves a prominent place in any honest history of the Republic.
The meeting with the bishops at the National Shrine in Washington was not terribly impressive. Later that day, he met with Catholic educators and the same must be said. Some of the college and university heads who have demonstrated little concern about the Catholic nature of their institutions, and some who have been most aggressive in advancing their secularization, talked afterward about how pleased they were that Benedict did not take them to the woodshed. That is worrying. It almost seemed that they were relieved that the pope did not seem to be excessively concerned about the 1990 exhortation Ex Corde Ecclesiae on Catholic higher education. It was at that point in the visit that an influential person in the media expressed regret that he had encouraged his colleagues to give the visit massive coverage. “This pontificate is not ready for prime time,” he said, and I have to admit that my disagreement with him was not wholehearted. I fervently hoped he was wrong.
That evening at the John Paul II Center in Washington was the interreligious gathering. There Benedict set forth, albeit briefly, his well-known argument about the necessary connection between faith and reason, and stated that, in the conversation between religions, “Christianity proposes Jesus Christ.” It began to seem that the visit was hitting its stride. This was magnificently confirmed the next morning with the address to the United Nations in New York.
The Holy See’s traditionally friendly disposition toward international organizations, and toward the U.N. in particular, was joined with a lucid and forceful argument that the foundation of such organizations, and, more particularly, of the U.N.’s claim to be the protector of human rights, was without credibility unless there is a firm acknowledgment of the dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God. Faith, reason, and natural law were highlighted in the contention that the U.N.’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” signed sixty years ago, is not believable unless grounded in transcendent truths about the human person and historical destiny.
The extended standing ovation from the delegates, and the even more extended ovation following the shorter address to the U.N. staff, was remarkable. It was as though they sensed that the moral charter of the organizationan organization that has been so dismally disappointing on so many scoreshad been renewed. The response is the more remarkable in view of the recent history of the U.N. in promoting abortion, population control, and other measures in violation of the dignity of the human person.
Then there was the ecumenical meeting that evening at St. Joseph’s Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Here, more than at any other point of the papal visit, there was a sharp edge to what Benedict said. In sum, he said that the hope for Christian unity, to which the Catholic Church is irrevocably committed, is undermined by those bodies that claim “prophetic” authority in jettisoning the Great Tradition of Christian faith by abandoning revelation and its apostolic transmission through the centuries.
There was specific reference to the cardinal doctrines of the Trinity and Christology, as defined by the early councils of the one Church of Jesus Christ. The pope has written that the Church is not a poorly managed haberdashery in search of customers, and, employing different language, that is what he told the assembled Christian leaders in his caution against the accommodation of the Faith to the fashions of culture. My impression, reinforced by conversations with some of the participants in the meeting, was that there was a good deal of salutary squirming in their seats on the part of some denominational officials present. The only unity we can seek, Benedict was saying, is unity that is pleasing to God, and the only unity that is pleasing to God is unity in the truth.
The brief visit to the Park East synagogue on the eve of Passover will be long remembered by the Jewish community. It was the first such visit by a pope on American soil, and the tone was that of a friendly neighbor dropping in to wish Shalom for his Jewish friends. Like the brief meeting with Jewish leaders following the interreligious gathering in Washington, the visit highlighted the unique relationship between Christianity and Judaism. It deserves to be long remembered also by Christians.
The Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, like that at Yankee Stadium, was truly splendid. The immeasurable wonder of what happens in the Mass was reflected in the beauty and reverence with which it was conducted. I will say nothing here about the contrast with the Mass at Nationals Park in Washington. And then there was the rally with 25,000 or so young people up in Dunwoodie on the grounds St. Joseph’s Seminary. I admit to having been skeptical. It meant twelve hours of being searched, frisked (“swept” the Secret Service called it), and kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Including hours of lamentably cacophonous and determinedly loud music by what even fans of that sort of thing called second-rate pop music. I, along with hundreds of others doing media coverage, were not in the best of moods.
The television platforms were in the very back of the crowd, and it seemed to us that thousands of the young folk were quite indifferent to the whole event, spending their time chattering and playing games, even as Benedict was speaking. It was the longest address of the visit. He seemed eager, almost desperately earnest, in trying to touch all bases. Only about halfway through his talk did I notice that the great majority of the crowd was paying rapt attention. Also, my mind was changed about the event when I spoke afterward with a number of the young people who talked in moving terms about how powerfully they were gripped by what he said. “It was as though,” a young man told me, “he made the whole of the universal Church present right there and then. I realized that being Catholic is not just religious ideas and moral rules but a personal invitation from Jesus to follow him in company with his disciples.” Life-transforming stuff.
God only knows what difference this apostolic visit will make in the long run. Finally, we all rely on the promise of Isaiah 55 that “the word will not return void.” There is no doubt that the word of “Christ Our Hope” has been delivered with uncompromised clarity and persuasiveness. Benedict did what good pastors do. He encouraged, taught, and, where necessary, corrected. It was by any pertinent measure a triumph. The papal week that was, I feel confident, will continue to be with us for a very long time.