Reflections on Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States

Thu, 04/24/2008 (All day)

By Rev. Christopher Viscardi, S.J.
Spring Hill College

“God bless America!”  The final words of Benedict XVI, as he prepared to take off from JFK Airport in New York, are the very small tip of a very large iceberg.  The entire visit of the Holy Father, beginning with his welcome to the United States by President and Mrs. Bush, is a reminder of the dramatic and profound shifts that have taken place both in America and in the Roman Catholic Church.  When Benedict’s nineteenth-century predecessor sent a historic Roman marble to the nation’s capital (1854), for use in the construction of the Washington Monument, it was stolen in the middle of the night by anti-Catholic nativists, who reportedly threw it into the Potomac, never to be seen again. 

Of course, Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878) did not win many American friends when he published his Syllabus of Errors (1864), reaffirming the papal condemnations of “progress, liberalism and modern civilization,” including political systems that establish separation of Church and State and grant freedom of religious practice to all creeds.  The conviction that a faithful Catholic could not be a loyal American was still strong enough to play a role in John F. Kennedy’s campaign in 1960. However much might be attributed to political posturing, President Bush’s warm welcome of Benedict XVI, and the Pope’s clear admiration for American culture, point to these dramatic and profound shifts.

On a more personal level, the papal visit has encouraged yet another shift – in the image of Joseph Ratzinger.  Both friends and enemies have known him as the Great Enforcer, but he came to America as pastor or, perhaps more accurately, as witness. He spoke of his journey as a mission “to proclaim this great truth: Jesus Christ is hope for men and women of every language, race, culture and social condition.”  With the multitudes in the baseball stadiums, the President in the Oval Office, Catholic educators and bishops, leaders of other faiths, the Jewish community at Park East Synagogue, he shared this same Christian vision of hope. 

In his address to the nation’s bishops, he spoke of the “deep shame” and “enormous pain” of the sexual abuse crisis, but his primary focus was neither discipline nor apology.  Rather, it was about how a bishop can best fulfill his call to “lead his people to ‘an encounter with the living God,’ the source of that life-transforming hope of which the Gospel speaks.”  In a similar vein, his address to the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities began by thanking them for their dedication and generosity. Speaking to them as “dear friends,” he reaffirmed “the great value of academic freedom” and recognized that the Catholic identity of these institutions cannot be “equated simply with orthodoxy of course content” or determined by statistics.  Rather, they are called to become places of awakening and discovery, “places in which God’s active presence in human affairs is recognized and in which every young person discovers the joy of entering into Christ's ‘being for others.’” If anything, his talk was conspicuous for the absence of any explicit reference to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, much less its controversial requirement of the “mandatum.”

Benedict’s pre-visit Message to the American People had announced the theme of his journey in “three simple but essential words: ‘Christ our hope.’” But most of the media coverage was exploring controversies and crises in the Catholic Church of the United States:  parish closings and consolidations around the country, continuing fallout from the sexual abuse cases (both human and financial), divisions over theological disputes (empowerment of the laity, women’s ordination, homosexual unions). Like his first two encyclicals on love (Deus Caritas Est), faith and hope (Spe Salvi), the Holy Father’s visit to “his American flock” may have seemed something of a disappointment.  But this is perhaps the key to Benedict’s voyage to America and to his entire papacy. 

The goal of a spiritual voyage is not to take sides in controversy or to resolve urgent crises, but to proclaim the power and the challenge of mystery.  What is key to understanding Benedict as pope are not the theological positions he may have taken as Cardinal Ratzinger, but the conviction of the truth which is at the same time the source of all life, in which we are immersed, and yet beyond the capacity of the human mind to fully explain or understand or even imagine. As he invites us to explore the richness of the mystery of faith, we may recognize the profound and radical challenge of what we say we believe.

In speaking of the Church, Benedict insists on “a fundamental truth: that the Church's unity has no other basis than the Word of God, made flesh in Christ Jesus our Lord.” As a result, everything else, “all external signs of identity, all structures, associations and programs, valuable or even essential as they may be, ultimately exist only to support and foster the deeper unity which, in Christ, is God's indefectible gift to his Church.”  And the mission of the Church is to be a living witness to “this magnificent vision of a world being transformed by the liberating truth of the Gospel,” which means “not losing heart in the face of resistance, adversity and scandal… overcoming every separation between faith and life… rejecting a false dichotomy between faith and political life, since no human activity - even in secular affairs - can be withdrawn from God's dominion” and bearing “rich fruit in outreach to the poor, the needy and those without a voice.”  And recognizing the limitations of a Church, which seems to many people legalistic and institutional, he sees “our most urgent challenge is to communicate the joy born of faith and the experience of God’s love.”

In St. Patrick’s Cathedral the Pope used the image of Gothic architecture as a metaphor for the Church today:  a “highly complex structure” which in fact requires the multiplicity of perspectives that must lead to dialogue rather than division.  “We can only move forward if we turn our gaze together to Christ! In the light of faith, we will then discover the wisdom and strength needed to open ourselves to points of view, which may not necessarily conform to our own ideas or assumptions. Thus we can value the perspectives of others, be they younger or older than ourselves, and ultimately hear ‘what the Spirit is saying’ to us and to the Church.”  Again, the Gothic cathedral has a unity, which is not static, as in a classical temple, but “a unity born of the dynamic tension of diverse forces.”  If the marble block thrown into the Potomac was a reminder of how far apart were the worlds of the American Republic and the Pope of Rome, the Gothic majesty of St. Patrick’s, in downtown Manhattan, is Benedict’s image of the beauty and the power of the Christian Gospel in the modern world.