Before Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States, we identified five key issues in his pontificate that we should watch for. The list was a good guess — but the man we once called the “Pope of Surprises” didn’t stick to our script.
With the benefit of a little hindsight, here is a more accurate list of the key issues that were on Benedict’s mind when he came to America.
When Pope Benedict himself declared (at Nationals Park) the purpose for his coming, he used this formal language: “In the exercise of my ministry as the Successor of Peter, I have come to America to confirm you, my brothers and sisters, in the faith of the apostles.”
He hammered home the same point in his address to Catholic universities, reminding them that the Church is mater et magistra (mother and teacher) and reiterating Church teaching on their relationship to the magisterium.
He told the bishops on April 16: “It cannot be assumed that all Catholic citizens think in harmony with the Church’s teaching on today’s key ethical questions. Once again, it falls to you to ensure that the moral formation provided at every level of ecclesial life reflects the authentic teaching of the Gospel of life.”
In most analysis after the visit, the Pope’s comments on abuse have been called the true story of his trip. But Benedict put even the abuse question in the context of a larger doctrinal crisis.
When he talked about the abuse crisis, he said it was “among the countersigns to the Gospel of life.”
When, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he spoke of the scandal — decrying the “filth” in the Church — his words were well-chosen and direct. So were Pope Benedict’s in America. On the airplane coming to the United States, he spoke of his “deep shame,” and said, “we will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry.” To the bishops he spoke of the Church’s “enormous pain,” and said the scandal was “sometimes very badly handled.” To the congregation at Nationals Park, he said “No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse.”
When he spoke to the bishops, he put the abuse in the larger catechetical crisis.
“The policies and programs you have adopted need to be placed in a wider context,” he said. “Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships. They should be spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today. They have a right to be educated in authentic moral values rooted in the dignity of the human person.”
But perhaps his most stinging remark was the one he directed at the culture at large in the 21st century, and at all who participate in it: “What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?”
Pope Benedict didn’t speak about peace to the extent we expected. But he did speak about a concept that’s very much connected with it: world unity.
Americans have always had a certain suspicion of the United Nations — and of world unity. With good reason. It’s right to fear for the loss of sovereignty and to be watchful that worldwide anti-life policies aren’t foisted on entire nations. The Holy Father’s remarks to the United Nations raised those issues pointedly. But they also almost eagerly anticipated a globalized world that would function on new models of international relationships and national sovereignty. He repeatedly drew out the analogy of the United Nations as at the center of a “family of nations.”
He was spelling out a vision he told the Nationals Park congregation about the world Catholics must influence. “It is a time of great promise, as we see the human family in many ways drawing closer together and becoming ever more interdependent.”
It’s only natural that he would focus so much on interreligious and ecumenical dialog, given this larger theme of global unity. It’s as if Pope Benedict were calling people to understand each other despite their differences, and providing an example in himself by demonstrating how a pope interacts with leaders in other major religions.
And how does a pope interact with other major religions? In a way that shows deep respect, by allotting time to them in a busy schedule — but also by seeing the truth in them and spelling out exactly what the Church’s beliefs are.
The overarching theme of the Holy Father’s visit, though, was renewal. He called the Church in America to return to the faith, reconcile with the past and build the Kingdom of Christ in the future. And to do so, Pope Benedict used language we haven’t heard for years. He declared “a great jubilee of the Church in America.” He told the bishops to prepare for “the new springtime of the faith.” He spoke of “the New Evangelization” and prayed for “a new Pentecost” for America’s Church. And he summed it all up with his “Thy Kingdom Come” message at Yankee Stadium, about the apostolate.
Was the visit a success? That will depend on how well it fulfills the hopes — and directives — of the Holy Father. In particular, its success will depend on whether or not: Bishops (and colleges) follow his instructions to guard the faith; families make headway against a culture of sexual excess; Catholics engage in the battle for hearts and minds in an interconnected world; and we all take up his call to the new evangelization.