Pope Benedict's first trip to the United States had many people concerned about the impact the German pontiff would have on a rather beleaguered church.
They asked if Benedict would be able to "connect" with people as his predecessor John Paul II had done. After all, Benedict arrived in America at age 80 while John Paul was a mere 59 when he visited for the first time in 1979. Benedict did more than connect. He bonded. He moved multitudes. He showed remarkable courage, wisdom and compassion.
Up until last week many people both within and outside the church in North America simply didn't know Joseph Ratzinger, and some didn't want to know him. They knew only half truths about a man called "the Vatican doctrinal watchdog" who was often portrayed as a strict, distant, scholarly bookworm who lacked the charisma and flair of his predecessor on the throne of Peter.
Then the Pope came to America.
The visit included a royal White House welcome on the Pontiff's 81st birthday, an address to catholic university administrators and educators, a major and a minor address to the General Assembly of the United Nations and the staff (Not many political leaders acknowledge the little people who make the big organizations work!). Jews in a Manhattan synagogue were blessed by a visit on the eve of Passover. And clergy and religious worshippers were strengthened and moved to tears in Manhattan during a magnificent liturgy on Fifth Avenue.
The media did not miss the deep significance of the Holy Father's private and moving meeting with victims of clergy sex abuse at the Vatican embassy in Washington. The Pope was unafraid to enter into the pain, confusion, sadness and evil of the sex abuse crisis. He let people know he listened and understood and he will continue to act so such a disaster would never repeat itself.
BLESSED THE SUFFERING
Benedict reached out as a gentle, grandfatherly shepherd and blessed disabled and suffering young people while their parents and caregivers wept nearby. It was a rare occasion to hear Benedict speak about his youth in Nazi Germany when he addressed tens of thousands of young people at the outdoor rally: "My own years as a teenager were marred by a sinister regime that thought it had all the answers; its influence grew -- infiltrating schools and civic bodies, as well as politics and even religion -- before it was fully recognized for the monster it was," said the Pope, who deserted the German army near the end of World War II.
An ancient Latin expression, first used by St. Ambrose in the fourth century, came to my mind last week during several moments of the historic papal visit to the U.S: "Ubi Petrus ibi ecclesia" which translated means: "Wherever Peter is, there is the church." Peter was in America last week, and his gentle smile and obvious serenity ignited a nation, a church and a continent with hope in the midst of cynicism, despair and many who would like to hasten death for a church that is alive and young.
The New Testament's Acts of the Apostles tells us "that they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them. Also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all being healed."
Benedict came to America -- to Washington and New York -- last week to bring healing and hope. Only time, reflection and prayer will reveal if the healing of U.S. Catholics begun last week, will bear fruit for the church in America.
One thing is certain: Last week the shadow of Peter fell on millions of people in America and far beyond. And one more thing happened last week: Joseph Ratzinger came into his own. Though elected and installed as Pope three years ago, I think his Papacy really began in the minds and hearts of North Americans last week when "Peter was among us."