Signs of the Times
White House Welcome
Pope Benedict XVI, meeting at the White House with President George W. Bush, said it was important to preserve the traditional role of religion in American political and social life. Religious values helped forge “the soul of the nation” and should continue to inspire Americans as they face complex political and ethical issues today, he said. The pope spoke April 16, his 81st birthday, at a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, where he was warmly welcomed by the president and thousands of cheering well-wishers. It was the pope’s first official encounter after arriving in Washington, D.C., the day before. The pope smiled and beamed as the crowd sang an impromptu “Happy Birthday.” The two leaders stood and listened to their respective national anthems, then a fife and drum corps played a medley of “Yankee Doodle” and other patriotic songs. The president greeted the pope with the Latin phrase Pax tecum (“Peace be with you”), and said the entire country was moved and honored to have the pope spend “this special day” with them.
Pope Meets Privately With Victims of Abuse
Pope Benedict XVI held an unannounced meeting with victims of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy, shortly after pledging the church’s continued efforts to help heal the wounds caused by such acts. The Vatican said the pope met privately in a chapel at the apostolic nunciature with “a small group of persons who were sexually abused by members of the clergy.” The group was accompanied by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, O.F.M. Cap., of Boston, which was the center of the abuse scandal. “They prayed with the Holy Father, who afterward listened to their personal accounts and offered them words of encouragement and hope,” a Vatican statement said. “His Holiness assured them of his prayers for their intentions, for their families and for all victims of sexual abuse,” it said. Federico Lombardi, S.J., the Vatican press spokesman, told journalists the meeting involved five or six victims, men and women from the Archdiocese of Boston, and lasted about 25 minutes. During the encounter, each of the victims had a chance to speak personally to the pope, who spoke some “very affectionate words,” he said. According to Father Lombardi, it was a very emotional meeting; some were in tears.
Dialogue Leads to Truth
Pope Benedict XVI encouraged interreligious leaders to work not only for peace but for the discovery of truth. The pope urged about 200 representatives of Islam, Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington April 17 “to persevere in their collaboration” to serve society and enrich public life. “I have noticed a growing interest among governments to sponsor programs intended to promote interreligious dialogue and intercultural dialogue. These are praiseworthy initiatives,” Pope Benedict said. “At the same time, religious freedom, interreligious dialogue and faith-based education aim at something more than a consensus regarding ways to implement practical strategies for advancing peace....The broader purpose of dialogue is to discover the truth,” he said. In a ceremony in the two-story main lobby of the cultural center, Milwaukee’s Auxiliary Bishop Richard J. Sklba, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, introduced the pope to the interreligious leaders, who wore traditional garments identifying their faiths.
At New York Synagogue, ‘Bridges of Friendship’
In a brief and moving visit to a New York synagogue, Pope Benedict XVI expressed his respect for the city’s Jewish community and encouraged the building of “bridges of friendship” between religions. The encounter on April 18 marked the first time a pope has visited a Jewish place of worship in the United States, and occurred shortly before the start of the Jewish Passover. The pope said he felt especially close to Jews as they “prepare to celebrate the great deeds of the Almighty and to sing the praises of him who has worked such wonders for his people.” He was welcomed at the Park East Synagogue by Rabbi Arthur Schneier, 78, who called the visit historic and “a reaffirmation of your outreach, good will and commitment to enhancing Jewish-Catholic relations.” The rabbi also used the opportunity to wish the pope “mazel tov,” or best wishes on his 81st birthday two days earlier. A choir from the Park East Day School performed during the meeting, which was kept brief because the Jewish Sabbath observance was to begin at sunset.
Human Rights Cannot Be Limited, Pope Tells U.N.
Neither government nor religion has a right to change or limit human rights, because those rights flow from the dignity of each person created in God’s image, Pope Benedict XVI said in his April 18 speech to the U.N. General Assembly. The pope insisted that human rights cannot be limited or rewritten on the basis of national interests or majority rule. But he also said the role of religions is not to dictate government policy, but to help their members strive to find the truth, including the truth about the dignity of all people, even if their religious views are different. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the pope and met privately with him before the pope addressed the General Assembly. In his public welcoming remarks, the U.N. leader said: “The United Nations is a secular institution, composed of 192 states. We have six official languages but no official religion. We do not have a chapel—though we do have a meditation room. But if you ask those of us who work for the United Nations what motivates us, many of us reply in a language of faith.... We see what we do not only as a job, but as a mission.” He added, “Your Holiness, in so many ways, our mission unites us with yours.”
Young Adults Enjoy Impromptu Meeting
Several hundred young adults holding a vigil behind the security perimeter around the house in New York City where Pope Benedict XVI was staying were rewarded April 18 with a papal handshake. Helen Osman, director of communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said more than 1,000 people had gathered throughout the evening near the residence of the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations, where the pope was staying. “Some just came out of curiosity,” but there were also others, playing guitars and drums. The young people from three New York parishes had been gathered by the Sisters of Life of New York, the order founded by the late Cardinal John O’Connor to promote the “Gospel of life.” At about 8 p.m. the U.S. Secret Service began allowing small groups to pass the traffic blockade and approach the residence. Pope Benedict came outside “after dinner” at about 9 p.m., said Federico Lombardi, S.J., the Vatican spokesman. The pope spent about 10 minutes shaking hands with young religious and other young adults who got the Secret Service nod.
Americans Thanked for Their Love and Prayers
Describing himself as “the poor successor of St. Peter,” Pope Benedict XVI thanked Americans for their prayers and love on the third anniversary of his election. The pope made the impromptu remarks at the end of a Mass April 19 in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, where some 3,000 bishops, priests, religious and seminarians gave him a standing ovation. The crowd broke into applause when the pope’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, delivered a Spanish-language “happy anniversary” message and wished the pontiff many more years. The pope took the microphone and, looking out on the sea of faces in the neo-Gothic cathedral, smiled and spoke in a soft voice. “I can only thank you for your love of the church, for the love of our Lord and that you give also your love to the poor successor of St. Peter,” he said. “I will do all that is possible to be a real successor of the great St. Peter, who also was a man with his faults and some sins, but he remains finally the rock for the church,” he said.
At Ground Zero, Solemn Prayer and Comfort
In the most somber moment of his six-day visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI knelt alone at ground zero and offered a silent prayer. The cheering crowds were far away as the pope blessed the ground where the World Trade Center stood until terrorists crashed airplanes into its twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. While the extraordinary security measures that surrounded the pope’s entire visit tangibly demonstrated how the attacks have changed the United States, the ground zero visit gave the pope an opportunity to speak to and console those whose lives were changed most directly that day. Twenty-four people stood around a candle, a plot of earth and a tiny pond as the pope knelt in prayer, including family members of those killed, some of the survivors and representatives of the first responders from the New York Port Authority, police and fire departments. At the bottom of the 70-foot crater where the towers had stood, surrounded by steel construction rods, forklifts and steel beams, Pope Benedict looked up past the skyscrapers shrouded in fog and read a prayer.
Pope Meets With Theologian Avery Dulles
During his whirlwind U.S. visit, Pope Benedict XVI took a few moments out for a private meeting with one of America’s preeminent theologians, Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J. The wheelchair-bound scholar traveled from his residence at Jesuit-run Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., April 19, for a prearranged private meeting with the pope, just after the pontiff met with disabled youths. “It was a lovely meeting,” said Anne-Marie Kirmse, O.P., who has been the cardinal’s executive assistant for the past 20 years. She was present to help facilitate the get-together, held at the seminary. “The pope literally bounded into the room with a big smile on his face,” she told Catholic News Service on April 21. “He went directly to where Cardinal Dulles was sitting, saying, ‘Eminenza, Eminenza, Eminenza, I recall the work you did for the International Theological Commission in the 1990s.’”
Faith of U.S. Catholics ‘A Joy to Witness’
Thanking Americans for their hospitality, Pope Benedict XVI left the United States amid a cheering crowd of 4,000 people who had come to see him off. “It has been a joy for me to witness the faith and devotion of the Catholic community here,” the pope said April 20 in brief remarks to those gathered in Hanger 19 at John F. Kennedy International Airport. “It was heartwarming to spend time with leaders and representatives of other Christian communities and other religions,” Pope Benedict added. Among those present were Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York; Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre; Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the U.S.; and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, whose diocese includes the airport. Also in attendance were Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York and Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne. “It has been a memorable week, and Pope Benedict XVI has stepped into the history of our country in a special way,” Cheney said.
Multicultural Mix of Ancient and Modern
The liturgical celebration of Mass by Pope Benedict XVI on April 17 in Nationals Park reflected the diversity of Catholic heritages and sensibilities found in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., where the Mass was held. It acknowledged both the roots of tradition and the branches that have sprouted from those roots. The prayer of the faithful was recited in six languages—English, Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Igbo. The sung response to the intentions incorporated three languages: English, Latin and Spanish. The first reading—the account of how the apostles started speaking in tongues unknown to them at Pentecost—was proclaimed in Spanish. Music composed in the 40 years since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council was included, as were ancient Latin texts set to chant—and a Latin-language Gloria written in the past decade.