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Perhaps it was just as well to try to get the question out of the way right at the start. For weeks, it seemed that every report and comment began with the question of whether Pope Benedict would be addressing the sex abuse crisis and, if so, how. While still on the way to America, a news conference was arranged with the reporters on the plane who were asked to submit questions in writing, from which the pope chose four. Sure enough, sex abuse was at the top of the list and, predictably, got top billing in the day’s coverage.

Benedict declared that he was “deeply ashamed” of what some priests had done in betraying their ministry and those in their care. In his former position as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he had to read the files on offending priests and is firmly resolved that, as much as it is humanly possible to prevent evil, such things will not happen again. He referred to “pedophilia” and said he was not addressing homosexual orientation, at least “not at this moment.” This was understandable, although it might confuse some. He did underscore that the Church needs good priests more than it needs many priests, although, of course, we pray for many good priests.

It was much remarked that the arrival at Andrews Air Force Base was notable for the president’s showing up to greet him. It is not evident what else is to be said about the arrival. Ordinarily one would say “arrival ceremony,” but this was remarkable for there being no ceremony at all. In fact, it seemed that nobody had choreographed the event and multiple parties were stumbling about trying to figure out where they were supposed to be. When the Holy Father finally emerged from the plane and there was the handshake with President Bush, it seemed the pope wanted to go over and greet the several thousand cheering people, but he was told by someone (the Secret Service?) to stifle his enthusiasm. He did seem very fit and enthusiastic.
In any event, there was no music, no public statements, and an opportunity was missed with the evening news programs, which had nothing to show except a safe plane landing, handshakes, and the pope leaving in a black limousine.

What was lacking in the arrival non-ceremony was amply offset by the careful, even elaborate arrangements for the events on the South Lawn of the White House the next morning. Marine band, army chorus, and opera singer Kathleen Battle with a spirited rendition of the Our Father. She was looking directly at the pope as she sang, which I expect confirmed the biases of those who suspect that Catholics worship the pope. During the spirited rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the pope seemed to be singing along with the “Glory, glory, alleluia” part. But of course what was said by pope and president was of greater interest.

“We need your message” was the repeated trope in the president’s welcome. America is a country on its knees in prayer, he suggested, interceding for the pope and receptive to his message. That message, he said, reinforces the truth of the Declaration of Independence regarding human dignity and is supportive of the mix of modernity and tradition, of faith and reason, that mark the American experience. There was a passing reference to the war on terror, and great applause from the crowd of 13,000 or so when the president referred to the protection of innocent human life.

In his statement, which concluded with a ringing “God bless America!” the pope rehearsed the history of this country’s quest for freedom, justice and peace, from the eighteenth-century founding through the civil rights movement. He spoke of America’s role in world affairs, making a connection with the United Nations and what he would say there on Friday. The pope and president then went off to a private meeting of more than an hour in the oval office. Private means just the two of them with no aides present. A few hours later, a joint communiqué was issued indicating the subjects covered: from “respect for the dignity of the human person; the defense and promotion of life, matrimony and the family” to international questions. “The Holy Father and the President devoted considerable time in their discussions to the Middle East,” agreeing on a two-state vision for resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, on the independence of Lebanon, a common concern for the situation in Iraq, with special attention to “the precarious state of Christian communities there and elsewhere in the region.”

In their public statements and in the joint communiqué, both letter and spirit reinforced a strong note of mutual respect and support. Anyone familiar with the long history of cooperation, conflict, and confusion between temporal and spiritual powers in the last millennium and a half of the West could not help but be struck by the juxtaposition of pope and president on the South Lawn.

Wednesday evening at the National Shrine, the Evening Prayer was conducted with great care, the pope presiding, with Latin and English texts nicely balanced. Benedict’s long address to the bishops who had assembled in the crypt or undercroft of the shrine was, as is his way, intense, carefully crafted, and demanding of close attention. Once again he returned to the sex abuse crisis, explicitly agreeing with Francis Cardinal George, who, in introducing the pope, touched on the crisis and said it had been “badly handled” by some bishops. How this is said is a matter of considerable delicacy. A pack of hungry lawyers has long been trying to extend legal and financial liability to the Holy See, and I doubt if they got any closer to their goal by virtue of what was said Wednesday evening.

There are deeper lessons to be drawn from all this, and, God willing, there will be time to address them. At the moment, the Mass of Thursday morning is just underway at Nationals Stadium here in D.C. Then, this afternoon, the meeting with Catholic educators and, later, with interreligious leadership. Then the whole company moves to New York, with our little crew from EWTN in tow. Perhaps there will be another posting from here, so please come back from time to time.

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