Pope Benedict’s first opportunity to address the American faithful came at the Nationals Park Mass in Washington, D.C., where he looked to the past and future of the Catholic Church in the United States. Benedict turned first to the manifold gifts that diversity has brought to the United States during the last 200 years, which have helped keep this country one of great promise. Yet he also recognized problems within American culture, among them, “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 recognized that the church too faces problems, among them “the presence of division and polarization in her midst, as well as the troubling realization that many of the baptized, rather than acting as a spiritual leaven in the world, are inclined to embrace attitudes contrary to the truth of the Gospel.”
The pope’s homily to priests and religious at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York was perhaps the most effective address of his entire visit. Benedict brilliantly used the metaphor of the cathedral for the entire Catholic Church. First, he noted the magnificent stained-glass windows, which on the outside are dark, but which on the inside “reveal their splendor.” How, he asked, can we draw into the church people who see only its darkness? The cathedral is highly complex, yet designed with a purpose. Can we help people see this truth? That strong edifice is also “born of the dynamic tension of diverse forces” that keeps the building standing. Can we see this as a symbol of church unity? Finally, the cathedral’s spires in the midst of a secular city are a reminder of the “constant yearning of the human spirit to rise to God.”
Toward the end of the Mass the pope also offered, spontaneously, a brief meditation on his role as the successor of St. Peter, which may be remembered even more than his dazzling homily. With admirable candor, Benedict reminded his listeners that he is, like St. Peter, a “man with faults,” and asked for their prayers.
The homily at Yankee Stadium lacked the newsworthiness of Benedict’s other addresses, but it included a clear call to the American faithful to embrace difficult tasks in order to grow closer to God. Quoting St. Paul, Benedict spoke of the “obedience of faith,” even though words like “obedience” and “authority” are hard to hear in our culture. Yet these words express “the truths that set us free. They are the truths which alone can guarantee respect for the...dignity and rights of each man, woman and child in our world—including...the unborn child.”
A preacher or homilist, however, communicates with more than just words. During his homilies at Nationals Park and Yankee Stadium in particular, his message of taking joy in the church was underscored by the joy that Benedict obviously felt as he worshiped with so many of the faithful.
James Martin, S.J.The Duty to Protect
Forty-five years ago last month, Pope John XXIII published his groundbreaking encyclical Pacem in Terris, arguing that world peace depended on respect for and promotion of human rights. On Friday, April 18, just a week after the Pacem in Terris anniversary, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the United Nations General Assembly and made the same argument, but gave added emphasis to the responsibility of the U.N. to uphold human rights even if it means overriding national sovereignty. An obligation more frequently referred to in American circles as “humanitarian intervention,” the “duty to protect,” Benedict told the assembly, “was implicit in the founding of the United Nations, and in fact, it increasingly characterizes its activity.” Drawing on John XXIII’s teaching that a government that fails to protect its people against violation of their rights or which itself violates them is illegitimate, Benedict proposed that intervention by the international community to re-establish the rights of a population is neither “an unjustified imposition” nor “a limitation on sovereignty.”
A major function of the alliance of weak and strong nations in the U.N. system, Benedict contended, is that in a time of crisis the strong come to the aid of the weak in the spirit of solidarity. He referred particularly to “certain African countries” and others adversely affected by globalization and natural disasters. Protection in such cases does not necessarily mean military intervention; it refers rather more broadly to any international action taken to respond to the failure of domestic authorities. These include emergency relief, refugee protection and human rights monitoring.
In linking “the duty to protect” so closely with the purpose of the United Nations and other international organizations, Pope Benedict made the most explicit statement yet of any pope in favor of strengthening the capacities of the United Nations, and he offered a very strong challenge to all governments to protect the rights of the victims of war, predatory government, economic inequality and natural disaster. Such action, he added, should not be unilateral. Given the nationalistic and sometimes xenophobic character of the current political climate in the United States, Benedict offers Catholics an extraordinary thesis with which to confront this year’s presidential candidates. Precisely because it contests the conventional wisdom, “the duty to protect” is a topic to be pressed in every available forum.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.‘A Land of Great Faith’
At a meeting with bishops and cardinals at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on April 16, Pope Benedict XVI delivered the most comprehensive talk of his visit, drawing much attention to his views on immigration and the sexual abuse of minors. “I want to encourage you and your communities to continue to welcome the immigrants who join your ranks today,” Benedict noted, “to share their joys and hopes, to support them in their sorrows and trials and to help them flourish in their new home.” He also acknowledged that the church’s response to incidents of sexual abuse by priests and religious was “sometimes very badly handled.”
Overall his message was positive, praising America as “a land of great faith,” and “prosperous and generous.” Yet he issued several challenges, often in the form of questions rather than condemnations: “Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs? Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching, or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?” He also noted “the sharp decline of the family as a basic element of church and society,” “the subtle influence of secularism,” and “the dictatorship of relativism,” and lamented the violence and pornography depicted in the media.
Benedict also noted the special nature of American culture: “It strikes me as significant that here in America, unlike many places in Europe, the secular mentality has not been intrinsically opposed to religion. American society has always been marked by a fundamental respect for religion and its public role, and, if polls are to be believed, the American people are deeply religious.”
The heart of his message, in his own words, might be this: “I believe that the church in America, at this point in her history, is faced with the challenge of recapturing the Catholic vision of reality and presenting it, in an engaging and imaginative way, to a society which markets any number of recipes for human fulfillment.” Indeed, echoing the theme of the visit, Christ our Hope, he challenged the church in the United States to go forward with the Risen Lord, with compassion, commitment and hope.
Peter Schineller, S.J.Pastor to the Victims
The landmark meeting with victims of sexual abuse, arranged by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., of Boston, was for many Americans the moment when their understanding of Pope Benedict XVI changed. Yet that meeting marked only one of several times when the pope raised that painful issue. The pope spoke about the crisis first with the media en route from Rome, expressing “deep shame”; second with the U.S. bishops, telling them, using the words of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I., that they had handled the crisis “sometimes very badly” and urging them to redouble their efforts and support the innocent priests who make up the “overwhelming majority” of the clergy; third with the victims from Boston; and fourth with the faithful in his homilies.
The official Vatican press release describing the meeting with abuse victims was spare in its language. The pope had “listened to their personal accounts and offered them words of encouragement and hope.” Arguably the most powerful moment of the trip was also the most private.
The pope’s ministry at ground zero also showed an instinctive understanding of a trauma, this one suffered on Sept. 11, 2001. During a brief ceremony, the pope knelt at the site of the former World Trade Center, lit a single candle and spoke with family members of several victims. Television cameras captured the emotion on the face of the pope as well as of the families, who were clearly moved by this encounter. Both encounters—one private, one public—reminded Americans that the pope is also very much a pastor.
James Martin, S.J.The Dialogue of Truth
Pope Benedict XVI’s messages on interreligious dialogue during his visit to Washington, D.C., were received with hope, happiness and a little realism after the mixed communications of the previous three years. When he visited with Jews to deliver his personal greetings for Passover, he reaffirmed the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on Catholic-Jewish relations and reiterated the church’s commitment to dialogue. At the larger interreligious gathering, entitled “Peace Our Hope,” he quoted de Tocqueville and Franklin Roosevelt, and extolled the vibrant connections in U.S. society between religion and freedom and between faith and reasoned recognition of common ethical values for the common good.
There were other surprises. Benedict dedicated two-fifths of his major address to the “dialogue of truth” that explores questions of human origin and destiny, good and evil and the end of existence. Making brief reference to Christianity’s belief in the unique salvific role of Jesus Christ, he reasserted that the higher goal of interreligious dialogue “requires a clear exposition of our respective tenets.” Thus dialogue “will not stop at identifying a common set of values” but will “probe their ultimate foundation.”
In many ways, Pope Benedict restored interreligious dialogue to where it was three years ago at the time of his election. During the long pontificate of John Paul II, mutual understanding, cooperation for social justice and for the common good, spiritual companionship and mutual exploration of beliefs in the search for truth were carefully articulated as distinct goals for interreligious dialogue. Urged by John Paul II, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue had clarified these goals, working closely with national and regional bishops’ conferences and with other Catholic associations and institutions active in interreligious dialogue.
Curiously, when Pope Benedict reaffirmed these goals at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, he did so without any reference to his predecessor, other than mentioning the name of the building. Present were 56 Jews, 55 Muslims, and Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Christians, mostly Catholics involved in interreligious dialogue or friends of the Cultural Center. The absence of a customary quotation from the inspirational John Paul II was not lost on the Cultural Center’s trustees and friends, and others, especially Jews, noted it too.
Pope Benedict also did not refer to the bishops’ conference, dioceses or any Catholic establishments where dialogue is promoted other than Roman institutions, but he did mention colleges, universities and study centers where candid exchange of religious ideas can occur. Universities will welcome this encouragement, even though it is not always clear how such dialogue should take place. Furthermore, the Pontifical Council, which he did not mention, lacks the competence it had in 2005, and the U.S. bishops’ staff, to which he also did not refer, is down in size and budget by 35 percent.
What Pope Benedict could not witness was the fellowship among the invited guests during the required three-hour wait before his arrival, a clear sign of the health of interreligious dialogue in the United States.
John BorelliA Model for Educators
One month before Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival in the United States, The Washington Post published a front-page prediction that he would deliver “a stern message” to the leaders of Catholic colleges and universities, who, according to the Post reporters, “are intently watching for a rebuke from Pope Benedict XVI during his Washington visit next month.”When he arrived at Catholic University, Pope Benedict was greeted warmly by his audience of Catholic college presidents, diocesan superintendents and a sprinkling of bishops who serve on the governing board of The Catholic University of America. At no point did the pope deliver a stern message or a rebuke, but spoke of the extraordinary importance of Catholic education at every level. “Set against personal struggles, moral confusion and fragmentation of knowledge,” said Benedict, “the noble goals of scholarship and education, founded on the unity of truth and in the service of the person and the community, become an especially powerful instrument of hope.” While the pope’s message was delivered gently, it was a serious one that argued forcefully for an understanding of Catholic identity that is larger than statistics and deeper than litmus tests.
The pope drew applause on two occasions: first, when he repeated his belief that Catholic education was of paramount importance, and thanked Catholic educators for “your selfless contribution, from outstanding research to the dedication of those working in inner-city schools, [you are] serving both your country and the church.” And again, when he made a “special appeal to religious brothers, sisters, and priests: do not abandon the school apostolate; indeed, renew your commitment to schools, especially those in poorer areas.”
Throughout his talk, Benedict’s content and style offered a model for teachers: no finger-wagging, no hint of coercion. His teaching was thoughtful, respectful, challenging and invitational.
In his address to Catholic educators assembled at The Catholic University of America, Pope Benedict XVI reminded his listeners of the history of Catholic education in the United States, citing the historic contributions of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, Saint Katharine Drexel and all the other religious sisters, brothers and priests who “together with selfless parents” established a Catholic educational system that supported generations of immigrants as they moved from poverty to mainstream society.
The Catholic identity of our educational institutions, the pope reminded his audience, should not be measured by the number of Catholic students or even by the “orthodoxy of course content.” The critical test must be the authenticity of the religious faith that animates such institutions. “Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools?” The pope reminded faculty at Catholic colleges and universities that while academic freedom was rightly respected and “of great value,” it could not be used “to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the church.” To do so would betray the mission and identity of such institutions. Teachers and administrators at all Catholic institutions, universities, colleges and schools must provide the kind of instruction and formation to their students that give public witness to “the way of Christ.” The pope singled out for praise those catechists, both lay and religious, who help young people to appreciate the gift of faith.
Joseph A. OHare, S.J.
John Borelli, special assistant for interreligious initiatives at Georgetown University and national coordinator for interreligious dialogue and relations for the U.S. Jesuit Conference, served more than 16 years at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and 17 years as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
John Guerra is president emeritus of the National Catholic Education Association.