The Pope’s plane arrived April 15 right at about 3:45. Upon its arrival, U.S. and Vatican flags were attached to the front of the plane and the jet taxied on the runway for a few minutes.
No one knew what to expect from this visit.
Prior to Pope Benedict’s trip to America, media outlets were using clichés to describe him: He was a “hard-liner” whose message would be “stern” — these were the same clichés they used when he was elected Pope.
That started to change as Benedict descended the staircase. No public words were shared, but the Pope greeted the crowd with his hands extended, and a wave or two, his thick white hair blowing in the wind. Many remarked at how energetic and glad to be here he appeared.
Five days later, he would depart from JFK International Airport, and the words the press would use to describe him would be quite different: “humble,” “open” and “honest.”
As President Bush, who greeted him at Andrews Air Force Base put it, “The excitement was palpable.”
“This has been a great week for Catholics,” he told the National Catholic Prayer breakfast a few days later, “and it wasn’t a bad week for Methodists, either.”
The papal visit changed “the perception of so many people” regarding the Pope, Msgr. Robert McCabe, a pastor in upstate New York, said while waiting for the Pope to speak at JFK April 20.
“People thought he would be cold and unapproachable,” he noted. But Benedict proved them wrong. “It was his humility” that disarmed people, he said. The Pope’s remarks near the end of Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral were a prime example, Msgr. McCabe said. There, he compared himself to St. Peter, the first Pope, but primarily in the fact that he, like Peter, was a sinful and weak human being who, in spite of that, was chosen to lead the Church.
The visit, too, he said, brought out so many Catholics who are devoted to the papacy.
June Ellison, a retired naval officer from the Bronx, said that she had felt Pope Benedict would be hard to get to know. She added that the Pope’s U.S. visit has helped her to get to know him better.
“His visit has been positive for Catholics,” said Ellison. “It’s been especially helpful for those people who are victims of abuse.”
The Abuse Crisis
Before “Shepherd One” landed at Andrews Air Force Base, Rudy Bandong said that he hoped Pope Benedict XVI would address some of the problems in the Church.
“I hope he’ll help resolve the problems in the Church,” said Bandong, a retired Marine from St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Bolling. “I hope he can do something about the sexual abuse scandal.”
Upon the Pope’s arrival and as he descended from the plane, print reporters got a voiceover: an NBC reporter broadcasting from the riser above them. He mentioned that the Pope spoke about the abuse crisis on the airplane.
“The victims have already answered him,” said the reporter. “They’ve said, ‘It’s too little, too late.’”
That dynamic was different by the time Pope Benedict left JFK. The Holy Father was being praised for mentioning the sex abuse crisis in six of his prepared remarks, and for meeting with victims of abuse.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi felt that the key reason for the Pope’s trip — the U.N. speech — had been overshadowed by the media attention to the Pope’s comments on the abuse crisis.
“You have to see the global message of hope and renewal of the Church,” Father Lombardi said at a press conference. “In giving hope to the Church in the U.S., you have to recall the problems in these years and find new ways to go on. You cannot give hope without recognizing the problems that have to be overcome to move forward into the future.” Wayne Cimons, a Catholic convert from Judaism, agreed.
“I thought that the sexual abuse crisis would be the media’s primary focus, but there’s been a transformation in the coverage,” said Cimons, of Tuckahoe, N.Y. “It’s been the periphery message of his trip. The media has been focusing on his message of hope and less on the divisive issues. Their coverage has been extraordinarily fair and less cynical than I expected. That’s gratifying.”
The Pope of the Little Gestures
Upon his arrival, there were the inevitable comparisons to Pope Benedict’s predecessor.
Maria del Mar Muñoz-Visoso of the U.S. bishops’ office was watching at Andrews Air Force Base as the Holy Father’s plane taxied to the red carpet prepared by the Air Force.
“John Paul II was a Pope of gestures,” said Munoz-Visoso. “Benedict is a Pope of words.”
Yet, in a visit dominated by words, it was Pope Benedict’s small gestures that spoke the loudest.
Americans were moved by his obvious glee at being in America, by his prayerful visit to Ground Zero and by his non-televised visit with a handful of sexual abuse victims.
Marilyn Villacort of Wheaton, Md., had an unexpected encounter with the Pope in front of the Vatican embassy. She said she had suffered recently from many difficulties, troubles that “only God knows.”
She met the Pope, and he grasped her hand.
“He was trying to give me peace,” she said. “He just stared at me and wouldn’t let go.” She said his look told her, “Everything’s gonna be okay. Just trust in God and everything will be okay.”
“He doesn’t have that big gesture,” said Joe Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York. “It’s the little gesture. Seeing him go from child to child in the chapel at St. Joseph’s Seminary, that close intimate contact ... learning from them ... It was captured so well. People responded to that. If he had gone for the big gesture, which is not him, it would have fallen flat. People were moved by that, even non-Catholics.”
If President Bush summed up the feelings of even non-Catholic Americans about the Pope’s arrival, Vice President Cheney’s remarks at the end showed how far the Pope’s words had sunk in.
“Nearly 57 years have passed since the day of your ordination as a priest in June 1951. You might have found it hard to imagine then that you would stand before all humanity as a teacher, a statesman and the shepherd of more than a billion souls,” he said. “That is what God has called you to do. In these 57 years, your wisdom and your pastoral gifts have been extraordinary blessings to our world. In these six days, you’ve shared those blessings very directly with the people of the United States. Your presence has honored our country.
“Although you must leave us now, your words and the memory of this week will stay with us. For that we are truly and humbly grateful.”
Tim Drake is based
in St. Joseph, Minnesota.