Two things stand out from the Pope’s visit. First, his power of attraction. From the welcoming ceremony at the White House to the Youth Rally in New York, Benedict XVI drew tremendous, overflowing crowds. And their size was matched by their enthusiasm.
The thousands of priests and religious who gathered with him in St. Patrick’s Cathedral gushed with three separate standing ovations and deafening applause that went on, and on, and on. The U.N. General Assembly gave him a standing ovation. The 20,000 young people who squeezed onto the rally lawn at Dunwoodie cheered so loudly and so often that the elderly Pope spent more time grinning than talking.
How to explain such power of attraction?
John Paul II, Benedict’s predecessor, had a dynamic personality and a flair for drama, which according to some commentators helped explain his attractive force.
Benedict is a quiet man, soft-spoken and gentle — yet he is a man of seismic integrity. He not only has a world-shaking message; he lives that message to the hilt. There is not even the slightest division between what he believes, what he says, and what he lives.
He has been faithful to God, to the Church, and to his mission in life through excruciating times.
That is the secret to his power of attraction.
Our world is inundated with political, intellectual, and cultural leaders who have not been faithful. We have had enough of them. This veteran Christian warrior who has ever stood firm in the truth is an intoxicating, indeed a life-saving, breath of fresh spiritual air.
A second way to explain Benedict’s attraction is his colossal faith in human nature.
This enhances his own integrity and adds to his power of attraction. This is what he shares most closely with his predecessor, John Paul II.
His friendship with Jesus Christ is so deep that he has absolutely no doubt about the power of God’s grace to change hearts. His hope in Christ is limitless, and so his hope in people, the recipients of Christ’s love, is unwavering.
That is why he can speak the truth so clearly, without tip-toeing around the real issues, and yet never quench the smoldering wick or break the bruised reed — he is thoroughly convinced that every person can perceive and accept the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.
He told Catholic educators that academic freedom is false if it militates against Church teaching, knowing full well that the banner of academic freedom has been raised for the past 30 years on the ship of theological dissent.
He told U.N. representatives that truth, religious truth, is the real root of freedom and human rights, knowing full well the secularizing sympathies that pervade that organization.
He called representatives of various religious to speak with “calmness and clarity” about their differences, knowing full well the tendency of interreligious dialogue to settle for superficial self-affirmation and relativistic reductionism.
Only his unconquerable confidence in human nature, in every person’s ability to recognize and welcome truth, enabled such affirmations to be received with the same warmth and respect with which they were made.
The real lesson every Catholic must learn from the Pope’s visit is not to be found just in his words. It is to be found in his example.
If every Catholic hoped as deeply as he does in the power of God’s grace, and if every Catholic strove as valiantly for that same unbreakable integrity between belief, word, and action, then the Church itself would begin to exercise a power of attraction strong enough to draw forth from this turbulent, secular age, a renewed, vigorous, and truly Christian, culture.
Legionary Father John Bartunek
is the author of The Better Part
(Circle Press, 2008).