WASHINGTON — Five years after his pastoral visit to the United States, Benedict’s presence continues to leave a mark on a Church that faces a rising tide of hostile secularism in American society.
For six days, between April 15-20, 2008, Benedict took up the "Pilgrim Pope" mantle of his predecessor Blessed John Paul II. Scores of thousands of Catholics — bishops, priests, laity and religious representing 195 dioceses — turned out to see the Holy Father as he made his stops in Washington and New York and to hear his inspirational vision of how the Church must engage American society with the Gospel message.
"The whole theme of the visit was ‘Christ, Our Hope,’" Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., recalled. "He was calling us to live our faith in the public square and put into practice our beliefs in the world."
Bishop Rhoades, then the bishop of Harrisburg, Pa., recounted that Benedict’s "warmth, gentleness and amazing teaching" banished American misperceptions of him as a hard-nosed "Panzer Pope."
Instead, he said, Benedict presented to the Church "the whole theme of the New Evangelization" and renewed the courage of the U.S. bishops in the face of increasing attacks on life, marriage and religious belief in the public square.
President George W. Bush personally greeted the Holy Father as he stepped off the plane April 15 at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, where cheering crowds greeted him. The next day at the White House, the Pope praised the U.S. founding documents’ recognition of "a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator" and recalled George Washington’s reminder to the nation in his 1794 farewell address that religion and morality are "indispensable supports" of its continued freedom.
The Challenge of Secularism
"The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate," Benedict said. "It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate."
The Pope later that day addressed the Church’s bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and spoke about confronting the pastoral challenges of secularism, the "quiet apostasy" of Catholics leaving the faith and the decline in vocations.
Since that visit, however, Church-state relations in the United States have deteriorated sharply.
In the most significant current dispute, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has joined with a variety of Catholic and other Christian organizations and businesses in a legal battle against the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services’ mandate, which requires that organizations, including Catholic ones, provide for abortion-inducing drugs, contraception and sterilization to employees in their health-insurance plans.
"I never thought in 2008 that religious liberty would be under attack the way it is today," Bishop Rhoades said.
These subsequent events make the Pope’s call in 2008 for Americans to uphold their nation’s foundational commitment to religious liberty and to moral values even more relevant now, according to U.S. Catholic leaders.
"If people no longer believe in God, and if the social sciences have weakened the idea that humans have any inherent or permanent ‘nature,’" Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said Feb. 27, "then words like ‘freedom,’ ‘rights’ and ‘truth’ don’t really mean anything. They’re just campaign slogans."
Benedict’s historic address to 400 Catholic university presidents and school superintendents on April 17 at Catholic University of America also set a new tone for Catholic education in America.
"This is the chief idea of Pope Benedict about higher education: It isn’t our job just to provide information about God, but that the Catholic university should be a place where God is in our midst," John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, told Catholic News Agency.
Garvey said the Pope’s address had "real, noticeable effects," with universities showing a "greater willingness" to embrace their Catholic identity and academics less suspicious toward the bishops.
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which ranks Catholic colleges and universities based on their fidelity to Church teaching, said Benedict would have been justified to call Catholic educators to account over "the current crisis in Catholic education."
"He chose instead to re-establish a vision where what Catholic education ought to be (was central)," Reilly said.
Reilly said Benedict’s positive appeal to Catholic educators moved the discussion beyond meeting only the most minimal requirements of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution for Catholic higher education, and reminded the educators that their mission "revolves around bringing young people to Christ."
Reilly noted positive improvements since the pastoral visit, such as the National Catholic School Standards developed by Loyola University in Chicago to promote Catholic identity in elementary and secondary schools.
Healing After Sex Abuse
Also on April 17, approximately 46,000 people joined U.S. cardinals, bishops and 1,300 priests for Benedict’s opening Mass at Washington’s Nationals Stadium, where he called for Catholics to "foster healing and reconciliation" in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal. The Pope would repeat this theme again at his Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on April 19.
Benedict also had a private meeting with survivors of priestly sex abuse, accompanied by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, and apologized for the Church’s failures.
"I told him then that he had a cancer in his flock that he needed to do something about," said Bernie McDaid, 57, who had been sexually abused by a now-deceased Boston priest at 12 years old.
The most heart-rending episode of Benedict’s meeting with sex-abuse survivors came when a woman who was raped as a little girl by a priest rose to tell her story, McDaid said. But when she tried to speak, she burst forth in a wailing torrent of tears.
Catholic commentator and author Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference, said the American Church has made "significant progress" against sexual abuse under Benedict. He said the pastoral visit "lent support to what the American bishops have been trying to do since 2002 to remedy the situation and make sure it doesn’t happen again."
"The incidence of sex abuse of minors by Catholic priests has gone way, way down in recent years," Shaw said. "While that’s due to a number of factors, it is certainly the result of the policies and programs of child protection put in place in Catholic schools and churches for quite a few years now."
The Pope also stressed the Church’s solidarity with other people of faith during his visit. He spoke with 200 representatives of religions, including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, at Catholic University’s Pope John Paul II Cultural Center on April 18 before making a historic visit the next day to the Park East Synagogue in New York.
"Getting together on American soil, in the land of freedom and democracy, where all religious communities can live together in peace and harmony was a real affirmation of Pope Benedict to Nostra Aetate and the Second Vatican Council," Rabbi Arthur Schneier said.
Pope Benedict also addressed the U.N. General Assembly that day, urging them to reject efforts to reinterpret the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in ways that would exclude God and the natural law.
"It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights," Benedict said.
Archbishop Chaput said the Pope’s affirmation of the "religious dimension of human rights" was a reminder that individuals aren’t "little godlings," but, instead, have "binding duties to God, each other and society."
On April 19, Pope Benedict arrived at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., to lead a youth rally of 20,000, where he encouraged the young people and seminarians present to have confidence to follow Christ’s call.
"I saw his gaze of love on each of us. It was very real," recalled Father Michael Roche, 34, a parochial vicar at St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown Pittsburgh.
The future priest and a group of fellow seminarians met with Benedict personally that day. "I’ve told people ever since: This guy loves you more than anyone you’ll ever know, even though he’s never met you and will never know your name," Father Roche said. "But he has just a truly real appreciation for your destiny."
The next day, the Pope bid farewell to the United States after visiting, praying at and blessing Ground Zero, the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center twin towers.
At his closing Mass before flying back to Rome, Pope Benedict urged the 60,000 Catholics packed into Yankee Stadium to live daily the words "thy Kingdom come" in the Lord’s Prayer as a witness to hope.
"This prayer needs to shape the mind and heart of every Christian in this nation," the Pope said. "It needs to bear fruit in the way you lead your lives and in the way you build up your families and your communities. It needs to create new ‘settings of hope’ where God’s Kingdom becomes present in all its saving power."
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.
CNA contributed to this report.
Image Credit: Shealah Craighead/ White House Photo on Wikipedia