Pope Benedict XVI’s first visit to the United States left a deep and positive impression on my mind and heart. The build-up to his visit was replete with predictable clichés and caricatures: God’s rottweiler, America’s divided flock, in the shadow of John Paul, a trip to the woodshed, a transitional papacy. In fact, the Pope’s visit left the same prognosticators surprised and breathless.
Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the U.S. was filled with depth and meaning. He had done his homework. He had listened attentively to his advisors, and gave the world a wonderfully positive experience of the Holy Father as person, pastor and pontiff.
The person of Pope Benedict
St. Augustine was once asked what he deemed to be the three greatest virtues. He replied without hesitating: humility, humility, humility. Americans were moved by Pope Benedict’s humility and self-effacing personality.
Shortly after he was elected Pope, this Holy Father confessed, “I prayed to the Lord that the cardinals would elect someone stronger than I, but in that prayer (the Lord) obviously didn’t listen to me.”
Pope Benedict is poignantly aware of his human frailty, and publicly asks the people of God for prayerful support so that he can carry out his apostolic office with courage and compassion. God is obviously hearing and responding to that humble plea.
The pope as pastor
The Second Vatican Council consistently taught that the Church must stand “with those who are poor or in any way afflicted … and make the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of its people her own.
Pope Benedict XVI modeled for America the meaning of a pastoral heart. Powerful images of him tenderly kissing a newborn child, kneeling in prayer at Ground Zero, meeting with representatives from the ecumenical and interfaith communities, listening to the stories of sexual abuse survivors, embracing disabled children, and breaking papal protocol to bless Placido Domingo, spoke volumes to the American people.
Pope Benedict emerged from the shadows of the immensely popular Pope John Paul II as his own man, caring, sensitive, bright and humble – truly a pope with a pastor’s heart. As pontiff, which means bridge builder, the Holy Father demonstrated remarkable acumen and vision. He made an impassioned plea to the United Nations to value dialogue and diplomacy over armed response as the primary way of enhancing security among the nations of the world.
In the same vein, he asked United Nations officials to seek ways to address the growing chasm between the rich and poor and focused on important themes including the primacy of human rights, the protection of the environment, and the need to listen to the voices of smaller nations who often feel subordinated to the decisions of a few.
Prior to his election as pontiff, the Holy Father accentuated the need for respectful interfaith dialogue, convinced that there will be no peace among the nations until there is peace among the great religions of the world.
Pope Benedict XVI courageously refused to gloss over the sad and humiliating events of recent years concerning clergy sexual abuse, which has left a gaping wound in the Church across the globe. His personal meeting with abuse survivors and his willingness to address this concern on at least five occasions during his visit demonstrated his desire to bring healing and hope to the Church so wounded by the abuse scandal. He asked the people of America to pray for continued purification and healing within the Church. He also asked the American people to not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of our priests are dedicated, hardworking and holy.
Finally, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Pope Benedict used the powerful metaphor of the cathedral to elucidate the splendor of faith in Jesus Christ. He used the image of the stained glass windows, which appear on the outside to be dark, but reveal the splendor of light to those who enter the Church. How can we, he asked, draw into the Church those people who only see its darkness?
This powerful image underscores the evangelical nature of the Church and the responsibility of every Christian to “proclaim and embody in a world where self-centeredness, greed, violence and cynicism so often seem to choke the fragile growth of grace in people’s hearts.”
The Holy Father’s visit to America was truly characterized by light, joy, simplicity and surprise. The Holy Father’s presence as person, pastor and pontiff was received and celebrated by people well beyond the Catholic community.
This so-called “transitional pope” is fast becoming the transformational pope, a transformation felt by anyone who observed this holy man walking in the shoes of the fisherman and loving his people tenderly.
Published in The Montana Catholic, Vol. 24, No. 5, May 16, 2008.