In saying that one must guard against superlatives in recounting Pope Benedict’s apostolic visit this April, one acknowledges that superlatives are not easy to resist. The enthusiasm of the crowds, the massive coverage and frequently glowing commentary of the media, the respectful attentiveness to sometimes ponderous lectures ponderously delivered in a heavy German accent and with hardly a deviation from the written text. It was not what one might have expected.
To be sure, most people did not know what to expect. Among those who pay a modicum of attention to Catholic matters, some feared and others hoped for a stern scolding from the famously, or notoriously, no-nonsense prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith now ascended to the Chair of Peter. Among those who have known Joseph Ratzinger over the years, there were no surprises in the substance of the message or the manner of the messenger. But they, too, were not prepared for the popular triumph of the visit, for a triumph it surely was.
Of course, a visit by any pope is a very big thing. Benedict was playing against vivid memories of John Paul the Great, who knew more than a thing or two about working a crowd. Except for a couple of tentative moments, Benedict didn’t even try. He didn’t have to. With reading glasses perched on his nose, he stuck to reading the text in hand. Whether it was the south lawn of the White House, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or Yankee Stadium, the nation was his classroom, and to the classroom he was born.
What explains the rapturous response? Aside from his being the pope, of course. John Allen, an astute reporter of all things Catholic, says it was the pope’s candor and gentleness, and he’s right about that. Benedict is shy. Halfway through the visit, a friend asked, “When was the last time you saw on television a shy person smile?” When, during the course of his reading what he came to say, applause and cheers broke out, he would hesitantly look up from his text with a small smile of pleased surprise and say, in effect, “That’s very nice but now let us return to the subject at hand.”
In a memoir written some years ago, Joseph Ratzinger recalled his ordination to the priesthood in 1951. Surrounded by jubilant well-wishers, he reminded himself that the several days of Bavarian festivities were not for him but for Christ, the Church, and the miracle of the priesthood. This April, with hundreds of thousands pressing to get a glimpse of him, and maybe even a touch of his hand, I imagined him thinking, “This is not for you, Joseph. This is not for you.”
So, yes to candor and gentleness, but there is also the unfeigned humility, the manifest learning and thoughtfulness, and the palpable depth of conviction about the truth to which he is captive. All this in starkest contrast to a culture of spin, self-promotion, sound bites, and restless freedom with no truth in sight. Here, I expect millions of viewers were thinking, is a person who believes he knows, and maybe he really does know, what it is all about. The theme Benedict chose for the visit, the proposed answer to what it is all about, was “Christ Our Hope.”
It would be interesting to know what he thought of those days in America. As it happens, he reflected aloud on just that a few days after his return to Rome. He didn’t use the word triumph but he was obviously very pleased. Grateful for the welcome of the American people and thanking the bishops and President Bush in particular, he said the purpose of the visit was “to confirm the Catholics in their faith, to renew and increase fraternity with all Christians, and to announce to everyone the message of ‘Christ Our Hope.’”
He added: “I was able to pay homage to this great country, which from the beginning has been based on a pleasing joining together of religious, ethical, and political principles, and continues to be a valid example of healthy secularism where the religious dimension, in its diverse expressions, is not only tolerated but valued as the ‘soul’ of the nation and the fundamental guarantee of the rights and duties of the human being.” America, he said, can consider itself “the homeland of religious liberty.”
At the same time, it is a society “marked by many contradictions.” In his recap of the visit, he urged the Church “to re-propose the sacrament of matrimony as a gift and indissoluble commitment between a man and a woman, the natural environment for the welcoming and education of children.” In the aftermath of the sex abuse crisis, he urged bishops “to heal the wounds and to reinforce their relationship with their priests.” His review touched on other points to be discussed below and ended with an invitation to join him “in thanksgiving for the encouraging results of this apostolic visit” in the prayer that it “produces abundant fruits for the Church in the United States and all the world.”
His aides say Benedict seemed greatly energized by the trip. Twenty years ago, in 1988, Cardinal Ratzinger gave our Erasmus Lecture here in New York, and a couple of years before he was elected pope I invited him to return for another lecture. He wrote a very kind letter explaining that, in view of his age, his days of international travel were definitely in the past. He turned 81 on the second day of his visit here, and, while he will certainly not rival the record of John Paul, one expects there is a good deal of traveling still to come.
There were thirteen addresses and homilies, and we can group them by such subject areas as his view of America, divisions in the Church, the sex abuse crisis, education, and international relations. On the first, at both the White House and at his departure from JFK Airport, he raised his head and his voice for a manifestly heartfelt “May God bless America!” President Bush went all out, even breaking protocol by meeting him personally at the airport. So swimmingly did they apparently get along that there was a rash of stories about whether Bush might become a Catholic. I would be very surprised.
The formal reception on the White House lawn was a festival of Americana, and Benedict seemed to enjoy it greatly. In an interview on the flight to America, he had said: “Of course, in Europe we cannot simply copy the United States. We have our own history. But we must all learn from one another.” He obviously thinks Europe has much to learn from a country in which”and here he cited Alexis de Tocqueville” “the state itself had to be secular precisely out of a love for religion in its authenticity, which can only be lived freely.” “Today,” he added, “there is also in the United States the attack of a new secularism of quite a different kind.” This new secularism, unlike “healthy secularism,” is hostile to the role of religion in “the public square” and, he believes, is in sharp contrast to the American founding, “which is a fundamental and positive model.”
Also in that in-flight interview, he spoke of “common values that are subsequently expressed in ‘rights’ that must be observed by all.” That formulation will be of interest to scholars who worry that the Catholic Church has too easily accommodated itself to the “rights talk” of the liberal-democratic tradition. Benedict seems more confident that the language of social and moral goods can be translated into the language of rights.
In that interview, as in his later address to the bishops, the pope spoke of the problems posed by immigration, especially the problem of “the breakup of families.” In the interview, he added that “it is necessary to distinguish between measures to be taken straight away and long-term solutions. The fundamental solution is that there should no longer be any need to emigrate because there are sufficient jobs in the homeland.” He said he would be speaking to President Bush about the need for America to do more to assist the economic development of sending countries. He did not mention free trade in his public remarks, but that is a critical part of what the 1991 encyclical on social doctrine, Centesimus Annus , calls “expanding the circle of productivity and exchange.”
On these and other matters, he would tell the bishops that, “as preachers of the gospel and leaders of the Catholic community, you are also called to participate in the exchange of ideas in the public square . . . . Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted.” In the face of secularism of the unhealthy kind, of materialism, and of individualism, the Church must be unintimidated in its witness. “If this seems countercultural, that is simply further evidence of the urgent need for a renewed evangelization of culture.”
To the bishops, he acknowledged that many Catholics have drifted away from the faith. “Much of this has to do with the passing away of a religious culture, sometimes disparagingly referred to as a ‘ghetto,’ which reinforced participation and identification with the Church.” Such sociologically intact Catholic communities, based on earlier immigrations, cannot be re-created. The alternative is “cultivating a Catholic identity which is based not on externals but on a way of thinking and acting grounded in the gospel and enriched by the Church’s living tradition.” Thus did he join the lively debate over whether communal identity can be sustained by individual decision. It can be, Benedict says, if it is remembered that “Christian faith is essentially ecclesial, and without a living bond to the community the individual’s faith will never grow to maturity. Indeed, the result can be a quiet apostasy.”
Bush said at the White House, “Here in America you will find a nation that welcomes the role of faith in the public square.” In his response, Benedict took him up on that, referring to an American polity formed by “the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” This was the first of several occasions in which the pope introduced the idea of natural law as a necessary principle in the beliefs that “forged the soul of the nation.” Those who hoped, and predicted, that he would criticize American foreign policy were disappointed. He paid tribute to Americans who have “sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad.” “Freedom,” he said, “is ever new,” and the Church will do her part in “building a world ever more worthy of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God.”
Benedict spoke of John Paul’s witness and the part that played in the end of the Soviet Empire and then, at the youth rally on Saturday, offered a rare autobiographical reflection. “My own years as a teenager were marred by a sinister regime that thought it had all the answers: its influence grew”infiltrating schools and civic bodies as well as politics, and even religion”before it was fully recognized for the monster it was.” He urged young people to thank God for “the extension of democracy” based on the dignity of the human person.
He returned to this theme on the final day of the visit, during the Mass at Yankee Stadium. Pointing to Jesus Christ, “the same yesterday and today and forever,” he declared that “these are the truths that set us free! They are the truths which alone can guarantee respect for the inalienable dignity and rights of each man, woman, and child in our world”including the most defenseless of all human beings, the unborn child in the mother’s womb.” At this, the stadium erupted with much cheering and applause. Benedict gently smiled and nodded his head, as though to say, “I knew you were waiting for that.”
In his earlier address to the bishops, Benedict urged “a clear and united witness” on public questions of great moral moment, recognizing that “it cannot be assumed that all Catholic citizens think in harmony with the Church’s teaching on today’s key ethical questions.” Then on Sunday at St. Patrick’s: “For all of us, I think, one of the great disappointments that followed the Second Vatican Council, with its call for a greater engagement in the Church’s mission to the world, has been the experience of division between different groups, different generations, different members of the same religious family. We can only move forward if we together turn our gaze to Christ!”
Drawing on an architectural analogy, he said, “The unity of a Gothic cathedral is not the static unity of a classical temple but a unity born of the dynamic tension of diverse forces which impel the architecture upward, pointing to heaven.” So also, “in fidelity to the deposit of faith,” is the unity of hierarchical and charismatic gifts in the body of Christ, the Church. And at the Mass at Yankee Stadium: “Here we are reminded of a fundamental truth: that the Church’s unity has no other basis than the Word of God made flesh in Christ Jesus our Lord. All external signs of identity, all structures, associations, and programs, valuable or even essential as they may be, ultimately exist only to support and foster the deeper unity which is, in Christ, God’s indefectible gift to his Church.”
There was, of course, intense interest in whether or how Benedict would address the sex abuse crisis. He broke the suspense by preemptively addressing it in the interview during the flight to America. “I am deeply ashamed and we will do everything possible to ensure that this does not happen in the future.” (Some reports, for reasons not explained, omitted the word deeply .) In subsequent public statements, he spoke directly to the sex abuse issue five times. What a great difference it might have made if the American bishops, gathered in 2002 following the firestorm that began in Boston, had collectively fallen to their knees and declared, “We are deeply ashamed.” Instead, we heard endless lawyer-crafted variations on “Mistakes were made.”
In that interview, Benedict kept the focus on the sexual abuse of minors. He added, “I will not speak at this moment about homosexuality: this is another thing.” Not at that moment, but, a few days after his return to Rome, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, issued a statement, explicitly approved by the pope, reaffirming a directive of 2005 that nobody is to be admitted to priestly formation who suffers from deep-seated homosexual tendencies, engages in homosexual acts, or supports the “gay culture.” When there is a doubt on any of these scores, the person must not be admitted to seminary. The statement emphasized that this applies also to all religious orders, some of which had suggested they were exempt from the rule.
Speaking to the bishops on Wednesday evening, the pope said that instances of sex abuse were “sometimes very badly handled.” That phraseology had been employed by Francis Cardinal George in welcoming Benedict to the meeting, and thus the pope’s repeating of it was, at least formally, not a statement of reproach but of agreement with the bishops. It was a nice piece of advance coordination. There were those who hoped Benedict would give the bishops a severe dressing down. This is to forget that bishops are not branch managers of Rome Inc., of which the pope is CEO. Whatever else he is, the pope is a bishop among bishops, and both he and they know that the integrity and well-being of the Church depend on the credibility and authority of the episcopal office. In the context of Catholic ecclesiology, for the pope to say, before a viewing audience of millions, that abuse cases were “sometimes very badly handled” was a dressing down, although not as severe as some had hoped for.
Then there was the meeting with five victims of sex abuse from Boston. There had been pressure to include Boston in the visit, but that invitation was wisely declined. Boston is the epicenter of the crisis, and, had the pope gone there, it would have been all sex abuse all the time. The five victims invited to the private meeting in Washington included some who had been vocal critics of the Church. Three of them afterward described the meeting in intensely emotional terms, testifying to something like a conversion experience as Benedict listened to them one by one and spoke of sorrow, shame, and the power of repentance and forgiveness. The meeting, along with the multiple public references to the scandal, may have marked the end of a sordid chapter in the Church’s life, although the victim organizations and their lawyers continue the long march through the courts and chanceries in search of payouts that now exceed more than $2 billion.
Catholic University of America in Washington was the site of a meeting with hundreds of educators, and, echoing the language of John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990) , Benedict underscored that Catholic schools are “integral to the mission of the Church,” and “the primary mission of the Church is evangelization.” This is in sharpest contrast to the July 1967 Land O’ Lakes statement, in which leading colleges and universities had declared their independence from the Church and her mission. In recent years, most of the more than two hundred colleges and universities in America have turned their attention to strengthening their “Catholic identity,” but relatively few come near to approximating the vision of Catholic higher education proposed by John Paul and Benedict. It is not encouraging that, after the Washington meeting, a number of educational leaders, including some who still champion Land O’ Lakes, declared themselves mightily pleased that Benedict is mightily pleased with the state of Catholic higher education. That is not what he said. That is not what he said at all.
On Thursday in Washington, Benedict also addressed an interreligious gathering at the massively expensive and embarrassingly underutilized John Paul II Cultural Center. Again he lauded the American experience, which demonstrates “that a united society can indeed arise from a plurality of peoples” E pluribus unum: out of many, one”provided that all recognize religious liberty as a basic civil right.” He spoke of the importance of “faith-based schools” for civil society and underscored that the purpose of interreligious dialogue is not only to enhance mutual understanding but “to discover the truth.” Then this straightforward statement: “Confronted with these deeper questions concerning the origin and destiny of mankind, 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. It is he whom we bring to the forum of interreligious dialogue.”
Acknowledging the Church’s unique relationship with Judaism, he then met separately with Jewish leaders to whom he offered a Passover message that included the words of Vatican II that the Church cannot forget “that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the gentiles.” Jews and Christians share a common hope: “Within this eschatological horizon is offered a real prospect of universal brotherhood on the path of justice and peace, preparing the way of the Lord . . . . This bond permits us Christians to celebrate alongside you, though in our own way, the Passover of Christ’s death and resurrection, which we see as inseparable from your own, for Jesus himself said, ‘Salvation is from the Jews.’” Later, in New York, he would drop by the Park East Synagogue to bring neighborly greetings on the eve of Passover. (He was staying at the residence of the Holy See’s observer to the United Nations, which is in the neighborhood.) It was only a brief visit, but it will be long remembered by the Jews of New York and beyond.
Friday was the United Nations, where his addresses to the General Assembly and, later, to the U.N. staff were met with standing ovations. It was the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Benedict again adverted to rights being grounded in natural law and requiring a transcendent horizon that illumines the dignity of the human person. Perhaps most notably, he affirmed the connection between a nation’s sovereignty and its duty to protect its citizens, which entails the obligation of outside intervention when a nation defaults on that duty. Scholars of the Catholic doctrine on sovereignty and just war have been given new grist for their intellectual mills.
The affinity between the Holy See and the U.N. puzzles many Americans who have learned to have no illusions about the latter’s integrity and effectiveness. In his address to the U.N. staff, Benedict touched on one reason for that affinity. “Here within a small space of the busy city of New York is housed an organization with a worldwide mission to promote peace and justice. I am reminded of the similar contrast in scale between Vatican City State and the world in which the Church exercises her universal mission and apostolate.”
Those who were searching for some criticism of the United States latched on to the pope’s observation that “we experience the obvious paradox of a multilateral consensus that continues to be in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a few, whereas the world’s problems call for interventions in the form of collective action by the international community.” Whether this was a reference to the United States in Iraq, or to the structural dominance of the Security Council in the U.N., or to the efforts of select nations to use the U.N. in imposing population and family policies opposed by the Holy See, Benedict did not say. Nonetheless, critics of America’s role in the world eagerly claimed what could be construed as the one crumb of the visit that fell their way.
More than at any other event, there was a strong note of reproach in his statement to the ecumenical gathering of several hundred Christian leaders at St. Joseph’s Church on the Upper East Side. He once again restated the Church’s irrevocable commitment to ecumenism in “the confidence that the Lord will never abandon us in our quest for unity.” But some Christians do seem to be abandoning the quest. “Fundamental Christian beliefs and practices,” Benedict said, “are sometimes changed within communities by so-called prophetic actions that are based on a hermeneutic not always consonant with the datum of Scripture and traditions.”
One can, by an exercise of hermeneutical agility, read that as not referring to the Episcopal Church, which is precipitating a breakup of the Anglican Communion with which Rome once cherished hopes of reconciliation. Within the ecumenical movement, the pope said, it is a mistake to avoid questions of doctrine. “A clear and convincing testimony to the salvation wrought for us in Christ Jesus has to be based upon normative apostolic teaching: a teaching which underlies the inspired word of God and sustains the sacramental life of Christians today.” A few leaders of major communions were conspicuously absent from the meeting with the pope, including the presiding bishops of the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, both of whom pleaded prior engagements.
Eloquent in its silence, apart from a brief prayer, and visually powerful was the visit to Ground Zero on Sunday morning, the site of the attack of September 11. I have already mentioned the Masses at St. Patrick’s and at Yankee Stadium; liturgically abstemious and musically elevated, they were in striking contrast to the multicultural ostentation of the Mass at Nationals Park in Washington. But it was the rally with young people and seminarians that I expect will remain most vivid in the memories of many, or at least in the memories of the 25,000 or so who were there.
The event on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Seminary got off to a rocky start in more ways than one. Here, too, the hyperaggressive Secret Service imposed hours of delays, checks, rechecks, sweeps, and general obtrusiveness, just as at other events they blocked the faithful eagerly reaching out to touch the pope and sometimes seemed to be pushing him around as well. It didn’t help that the crowds at the Dunwoodie rally were subjected to hours of “entertainment” by rock groups and would-be comedians before Benedict’s arrival. The mood was restive and distracted, and then, at last, he came, he spoke, and everything was changed.
The talk was one of the longest of the visit and was delivered with a low-key intensity; so palpable was his urgency in inviting young people to dare the course of sainthood. Yes to freedom, he said, and freedom is living in the truth. “Dear friends, truth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules. It is the discovery of the One who never fails us; the One whom we can always trust. In seeking truth we come to live by belief because ultimately truth is a person: Jesus Christ. That is why authentic freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in; nothing less than letting go of self and allowing oneself to be drawn into Christ’s very being for others . . . . Sometimes we are looked upon as people who speak only of prohibitions. Nothing could be further from the truth! Authentic Christian discipleship is marked by a sense of wonder. We stand before the God we know and love as a friend, the vastness of his creation and the beauty of our Christian faith.”
To the seminarians: “I am glad to know that your numbers are increasing . . . I urge you to deepen your friendship with Jesus the good shepherd. Talk heart to heart with him. Reject any temptation to ostentation, careerism or conceit. Strive for a pattern of life truly marked by charity, chastity, and humility in imitation of Christ, the eternal high priest, of whom you are to become living icons.” And then, to all young people considering what they are to do with their lives: “What is God whispering to you? . . . Nourished by personal prayer, prompted in silence, shaped by the Church’s liturgy, you will discover the particular vocation God has for you. Embrace it with joy.”
It was a remarkable week. It was a triumph. In the exuberance of the many events, one imagined Benedict saying again and again: “This is not for you, Joseph. This is not for you.” Almost half a century ago, in 1961, he wrote: “Apostolic office is never the taking of some official powers that are then at the disposal of the office-bearer. Rather, it is being taken into the service of the Word, the office of testifying to something with which one has been entrusted and which stands above its bearer, so that he fades into the background and is just a voice that enables the word to be heard in the world.” And now, as Peter among us, he continues to defer to the Word.
“What is God whispering to you?” For the hundreds of thousands who were there during those six memorable days, and for the millions who watched on television, I expect that was the question that lingered long after the airplane dubbed “Shepherd One” took off from Kennedy Airport. After the commercial break and the television cameras turned without missing a beat to What Is Happening Now, one would like to think that the whispering suspicion persisted that this gentle man with the odd accent and shy smile really does know what it is all about. It is all about saying yes to “Christ Our Hope.”
Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things .