Last week Pope Benedict XVI made his first visit as Pope to the United States of America. Many were concerned about the impact the German Pope 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 II was a mere 59 when he visited for the first time in 1979.
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 former Vatican watchdog who was often portrayed as a strict, scholarly bookworm who lacked the charisma and flair of his predecessor on the throne of Peter. Last week something changed significantly in peoples’ perception of Benedict XVI.
The carefully orchestrated American pilgrimage was replete with a White House royal welcome for his 81st birthday on Wednesday, a major lecture to Catholic university presidents and educators, a private and very moving meeting with victims of clergy sex abuse at the Vatican embassy in Washington, an address to leaders of many faith traditions, and a mega Mass in the Nationals Stadium
Moving over to the Big Apple for the final leg of the journey, the Pontiff gave a major address to the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization only to be followed by another major address to the people behind the scenes at the UN: secretaries, janitors, interns and the support staff. (Not many political leaders acknowledge the little people who make the big organizations work!)
The German Pope also visited a Manhattan Synagogue on the eve of the first day of Passover. He celebrated Mass marking the third anniversary of his election as Pope on April 19 in what many consider the symbolic seat of Catholicism in the USA -- New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. During that mass he issued a rallying cry for the “new spring” in a Church that he said was so divided and wounded in many ways, especially by the clergy sex-abuse scandal. As our Salt + Light cameras covered the event, we saw many priests and religious men and women in tears during that Mass
At the end of Mass celebrated on the Pope’s third anniversary of election, he spoke personal and unscripted words:
"At this moment I can only thank you for your love of the Church and Our Lord, and for the love which you show to the poor Successor of Saint Peter. I will try to do all that is possible to be a worthy successor of the great Apostle, who also was a man with faults and sins, but remained in the end the rock for the Church. And so I too, with all my spiritual poverty, can be for this time, in virtue of the Lord’s grace, the Successor of Peter…"
On Saturday evening the grandfatherly Benedict stunned the world, and even himself, with a grand performance of humanity, compassion, conviction, sheer joy and very stirring words at the youth events at New York’s seminary in Yonkers. Prior to entering the World Youth Day atmosphere outside, the Pope met with dozens of disabled children in the seminary chapel – most of them in wheelchairs. The Pope walked slowly down the aisle, along which the children were lined up. He took each by the hands, or kissed a child on the head. Parents and caregivers nearby wept openly.
At the outdoor rally for nearly 30,000 young people, Benedict made a rare reference to his upbringing in Nazi Germany. “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.
Throughout the week the Vatican took great care in articulating the Pope’s immigration position, stating the need to protect family unity and immigrants’ human rights, but pointedly avoiding any specifics of the American immigration debate, like the issue of whether to grant legal status to illegal immigrants. For sure, Benedict’s words last week stirred the crosscurrents of the debate at the heart of a presidential election in the USA.
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 USA: “Ubi Petrus ibi ecclesia” which translated means: “Wherever Peter is, there is the church.”
Peter was in America last week, on the South Lawn of the White House and at the Catholic University of America. Peter’s great 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. Peter’s words addressed to representatives of more than 190 member nations of the UN spoke of human rights, dignity, dialogue and peace to a world at war in so many places. Peter’s eloquent silence, prayer and gestures at Ground Zero brought healing and peace to victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks on a nation.
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 last week to bring healing and hope. His words and simple gestures were desperately needed in a nation torn apart by terrorism and wars, and in a Church split by many divisions. Only time, reflection and prayer will reveal if the healing of US Catholics begun last week, will bear fruit for the Church in America.
One thing is certain, however: last week the shadow of Peter fell on millions of people in America and far beyond. And many received hope and experienced healing from our many diseases. 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.”
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.,
C.E.O., Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation