April 25, 2008


The pope’s visit

What did you go out—to Washington or New York—to see? A holy man? A brilliant man with a message for the Church in the United States?

Well, yes. Pope Benedict XVI is both of those. But they’re hardly the reasons why tens of thousands of people went to Washington and New York to see him or millions of others watched on television.

It’s simply because he is the pope, the 264th successor of St. Peter, the supreme pastor of the universal Church. Catholics wanted to see him to give witness to their faith.

It matters not that Pope Benedict doesn’t have the charisma that his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had (as seems to be pointed out ad nauseam). Or even that Catholics might disagree with some of the things the pope says. It’s enough that they want to be in the presence of the vicar of Christ on Earth.

Now that the pope has returned to the Vatican, we must not treat his visit as just an exciting six days. He had important things to say to us, and we must pay attention.

He didn’t come here to scold us, but he didn’t hesitate to question why members of the faithful who worship in church on Sunday act contrary to their beliefs and Church teachings during the rest of the week.

He specifically pointed to exploitation of the poor, sexual behavior and positions on right-to-life issues that are contrary to Catholic moral teaching.

Checking the secular media, you would think that the pope came mainly to talk about the clergy sexual abuse scandal. He did talk about it—on at least five occasions. He said that he was deeply ashamed and found it difficult to understand how priests could betray their mission, and he said that the Church had to act on three levels: the juridical, the pastoral and preventive.

He also met privately with abuse victims. But this was a no-win situation. The meeting was criticized by some as only a public relations gesture. Of course, he would also have been criticized if he hadn’t had the meeting. What more could he have done on this trip?

The pope also reached out to about 200 leaders of Islam, Judaism, Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism. He had a special message for Jews as they prepared for Passover and visited a Jewish synagogue. He met with about 250 representatives of ecumenical ­organizations and a dozen Christian Churches and ecclesial communities for a prayer service. He praised the religious freedom found in our country.

There was speculation prior to the pope’s visit that he would reprimand Catholic college presidents for failing to maintain the Catholic character of their institutions. This seemed to be nonsense to us since he spent so much of his life as a university professor.

Sure enough, he said that he wished to “reaffirm the great value of academic freedom,” but also said that appeals to academic freedom “to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission.”

Pope Benedict had wise words in his speech at the United Nations, where he spoke about human rights, the importance of multilateral consensus in crises, and protection of “the order of creation.” The world should listen to him.

Crowds greeted him everywhere, but none were more enthusiastic than the youths with whom he met, including some from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. His popularity among young people demonstrates the love they have for their Church and for this pope.

It was said by the media that most American Catholics really didn’t know Pope Benedict. They do now. Perhaps many of them were surprised by what they saw because, despite what we and others in the Catholic press have written, the secular media had given people a negative view of the pope.

We hope that his visit will stimulate a renewal and a unity in the Catholic Church in the United States.

And maybe, just maybe, his visit will dispel the idea that he isn’t charismatic. The young people think he is.

Charismatic or not, we have a magnificent, brilliant and energetic pope.

Ad multos annos!

—John F. Fink

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