The Thursday Mass at Nationals Park introduced the Holy Father to aspects of the aesthetic suffering endured by the faithful in America. The background notes we have been supplied are not specific about who, for instance, is to blame for the choice of music. The whole thing was overweeningly, preeningly multicultural. In his words of welcome to the pope, Archbishop Wuerl of Washington noted the many nations, languages, ethnicities of the Church in America, indicating that there are also Catholics here in America who trace their lineage to Europe. Well yes, there are a few.

In the response to our EWTN coverage, we received hundreds of complaints about the over-the-top stretch to be multicultural, along with some complaints by those were offended by our mentioning it. It’s hard to win on this score. And I have to remind myself that even mild criticisms of the way the Holy Father’s visit is being handled are taken amiss by people for whom even the chance to see the pope from a distance is one of the great moments of their lives. When over the years one has been present at papal events beyond numbering, one inevitably develops a measure of critical distance in which even mildly critical comments can clash with the intense piety of many of the Catholic faithful. Anything short of all-Wow!-all-the-time is taken as a sign of insufficient enthusiasm. Raymond Arroyo and I have multiple opportunities to remind one another of this dynamic.

The homily at National Parks, as usual in Benedict’s low-key but intense manner, touched on many subjects but kept close to the overarching theme of the entire pastoral visit “Christ Our Hope.” Here the emphasis was on America as a nation of hope. To the bishops yesterday he spoke of the errors of construing salvation in a narrowly individualistic manner, thus shortchanging the eschatological and cosmic dimensions of redemptive promise. So also in this homily, Benedict counters individualism with words on the Church as a structured community that is, at the same time, the mystical body of Christ. Here he lifts up the continuing ministry of Peter in strengthening the apostolic mission of the entire Church.

In the course of the homily, Benedict once again spoke to the sex abuse crisis, this time emphasizing the responsibility of all to play a part in reconciliation and healing. So all the chatter prior to the visit about whether the crisis would be addressed is decisively laid to rest. It was said that he would take up that subject at the Saturday Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, but at this point one wonders what else needs to be said about it that he has not already said. An additional note in this homily is the unity of faith and reason in the evangelization of culture, and the renewing power of continuing conversion in the life of the Church and the importance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in effecting that conversion.

Of course nothing can diminish, never mind negate, the astonishment of the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass, but it must be admitted that the mish-mash of music and liturgical practices putatively representing the “other” of multiculturalism did vigorously compete with the central reality. I offered an observation or two on this in the course of our EWTN coverage, provoking the response that the people in the stadium were obviously enjoying themselves and we mustn’t try to impose our elitist musical and liturgical criteria. Ouch. The point I was making is that Benedict has written very specifically over the years about the distortion of the dynamics of worship when attention is focused on “our wonderful selves” rather than on the glory of God. He has also stressed the importance of renewing commitment to and continuity in the tradition of sacred music, including Gregorian chant, a tradition almost entirely absent from the stadium Mass. So the point of the commentary on that Mass is that it is remarkable that, on matters about which Benedict has been so emphatic, his views were so egregiously ignored or defied.

Admittedly, in his frequent writings on matters liturgical, Benedict has often offered a caveat on the difficulty of doing it right on occasions with huge crowds such as is the case here and will be Sunday at Yankee Stadium, so I expect he is resigned to things getting out of hand and his pastoral disposition is to go along with the more or less inevitable. It is also the case that some of those in Nationals Park said they did not notice the music and other multicultural indulgences that were so prominent in what was televised. Which is probably just as well.

Thursday afternoon was the meeting at Catholic University with hundreds of leaders in Catholic education. There was an edge to some of his remarks. For instance, “We observe today a timidity in the face of the category of the good and an aimless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom.” Education is about truth, and the crisis of truth is a crisis of faith. Authentic freedom is discovered in the exploration of truth. “Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in¯a participation in Being itself.” And, as always, he emphasizes the unity of faith and reason and does so in ways that require a careful reading of the text.

He had a very busy day. Earlier Thursday afternoon he met privately with five victims of sex abuse. Then he was off to address the educators at Catholic University, after which he took the popemobile across the road to the John Paul II Cultural Center for the meeting with “the representatives of other religions.” In the past, Ratzinger/Benedict has been skeptical of interreligious dialogue that moves too quickly to the theological before dealing with cultural differences and conflicts. In this address, however, he urges a common effort to explore the most important truths about “the origin and destiny of mankind,” making clear that, in that effort, “Christianity proposes Jesus of Nazareth. He, we believe, is the eternal Logos who became flesh in order to reconcile man to God and reveal the underlying reason of all things.”

Recognizing the unique relationship between Judaism and Christianity, the meeting with representatives of world religions was immediately followed by a further, albeit very brief, meeting with a smaller group of Jewish leaders. Benedict’s remarks are titled “To the Jewish community on the Feast of Pesah.” He did not deliver the text but merely handed the paper to the assembled Jewish leaders. And, of course, there will be a brief visit to a synagogue in New York as Jews are preparing to celebrate Passover.

Having returned from Washington on a train that pulled in around midnight, this is written early Friday morning. Now it is off to cover the pope’s arrival in New York, followed by the address to the United Nations and then the ecumenical meeting at St. Joseph’s this evening. An interesting note on the latter is that, after some considerable discussion, it was decided to invite two of the “apostles” of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). The LDS is very eager to be recognized as a Christian community and therefore rightly represented in an ecumenical meeting, while some of the other Christian leaders complain that the LDS is running under false colors. These are difficult questions that surfaced during the candidacy of Mitt Romney and will not be entirely resolved any time soon. But I think the planners were right to include the LDS, putting the most favorable construction on things and recognizing that the LDS may be on the road, undoubtedly a long road, toward embracing the consensual tradition of the early Church that is shared by all who are less doubtfully brothers and sisters in Christ.

The media coverage, insofar as I have been able to follow it, is still excessively preoccupied with comparisons between Benedict and John Paul the Great. That is both unfair and misleading. Benedict is who he is, the 264th¯or, according to some reckonings, the 265th—successor to St. Peter, doing what Peter among us is supposed to do, strengthening the faithful. They key thing, as one has occasion to say for the thousandth time, is to concentrate not so much on the person as the message. Listen, and listen carefully, to what he says! He is very much the man many of us have known and admired for years. And now he speaks as the Vicar of Christ, the shepherd of the universal Church in the service of the Good Shepherd. Remembering, of course, that this is the week of Good Shepherd Sunday.

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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