Pope Benedict’s apostolic visit to the United States will be his seventh apostolic voyage outside Italy. (He has also made eight in Italy.) Here’s a look back at some of the high points of his international papal travels so far.
Germany Aug. 18-21, 2005
The main motive for the Holy Father’s first extended flight was, of course, World Youth Day in Cologne. More than 1 million ebullient young people turned out for the occasion, which allowed the then-new Pope to show the shape his leadership would take: an intensely spiritual one.
“It is not ideologies that save the world, but only a return to the living God, our Creator, the guarantor of our freedom, the guarantor of what is really good and true,” he said to the throngs gathered in Marienfeld, a vast field, for a vigil his third day there. “True revolution consists in simply turning to God who is the measure of what is right and who at the same time is everlasting love. And what could ever save us apart from love?”
Benedict also addressed the German bishops, a gathering of seminarians and priests, a Protestant and Orthodox audience, the German Jewish community (in the Cologne synagogue, no less) and German Muslims.
Young people “are not looking for a Church that panders to youth,” he told his fellow bishops, “but one that is truly young in spirit, a Church completely open to Christ, the new man … [T]here can be no false compromise, no watering down of the Gospel.”
Poland May 25-28, 2006
Pope Benedict’s visit to his predecessor’s homeland proved both productive and historic. He again held an ecumenical meeting with non-Catholic Christians, praying with them for “the restoration of full visible unity among Christians” and urging couples in mixed marriages to raise their children as baptized followers of Christ, and he again met with representatives of his host country’s Catholic movements and religious orders.
He dedicated an entire day of his sojourn to the memory of “our dear Pope John Paul II.” An open Mass in Krakow, the onetime Bishop Karol Wojtyla’s beloved see, drew close to 1 million people.
But surely the most memorable moments of this trip came when the Pope, a man who as a Bavarian teenager was compelled by the Nazis to enroll in the Hitler Youth movement, paid a somber visit to the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. “It is a duty before the truth and the just due of all who suffered here,” he said, “a duty before God for me to come here as the successor of Pope John Paul II and as a son of the German people.”
Catholic News Service reported that a Jewish-born Catholic priest who met Benedict at Birkenau, Father Romuald Weksler-Waskinel, said the German Pope’s visit had “brought part of history to an end.”
Spain July 8-9, 2006
Arriving in Valencia for the World Meeting of Families just one week after a nearby subway derailment killed more than 40 people, Benedict made the disaster site his first stop. Later in the day he prayed with bereaved family members.
At the conference he had practical, Christ-centered advice for families, and pointed out the role of the family in fostering priestly vocations. In the wake of laws recently enacted in Spain to enable easy divorce and allow homosexual “marriage,” he reiterated Church teachings on marriage and family.
Later he met privately with the country’s prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Some speculated beforehand that the Pope wanted to “scold” the Socialist politician for the new laws but, after the meeting, a government spokesman said the conversation had been “extremely cordial.” This accorded with Benedict’s comments to reporters on the papal flight to Spain. The critic-confounding Pope said he wished not to “start on the negative” but rather help people see why “the Church cannot accept certain things but at the same time wants to respect people and help them.”
Germany Sep. 9-14, 2006
Benedict prayed for peace on the anniversary of 9/11. He urged the re-evangelization of Western civilization. He took personal side trips to the places of his birth and childhood. He prayed with his older brother — also a priest — at the cemetery of their parents and sister. He greeted his countrymen. Yet what do most folks remember about this trip? The Pope’s remarks at Regensburg.
It was at the university there, of course, that the Holy Father used a quote from a Christian emperor’s dialogue with a Muslim in the 14th century to remind his intellectual audience that sincere, respectful dialogue is possible in inter-religious settings even when it is very frank.
A worldwide wail went up. Muslims protested. Headlines screamed. The Holy Father expressed regret to those who felt offended.
Later, writing in USA Today, leading Catholic theologian George Weigel speculated that Benedict may have chosen his bold, if not risky, example in order to hearten Islamic reformers “who are trying to convince the extremists among their fellow Muslims that irrational violence in the name of God is, in fact, offensive to the one true God.” Follow-up meetings with Muslim leaders and intellectuals seemed to support Weigel’s hypothesis.
Turkey Nov. 28-Dec. 1, 2006
Many people worried for him when Benedict boarded a plane bound for a Muslim nation. The Western media were still not done with Regensburg and, as they told it, the menacing protests his “unnecessarily provocative” speech had spurred were ready to re-erupt “on the Muslim street” immediately upon the Holy Father’s touchdown in the capital city of Ankara.
In reality, some Islamic radicals made their presence known, but the Turkish authorities clearly had their minds set on security and hospitality for the world’s most conspicuous Christian pilgrim. “A Beautiful Beginning,” beamed the top headline in Hurriyet, one of Turkey’s biggest daily newspapers.
Benedict went on to celebrate Mass for Turkey’s small Catholic community on a hill overlooking Ephesus, where the Blessed Mother lived after Jesus ascended, and he prayed for Christian unity with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. While in Istanbul, the Holy Father made a surprising and historic side trip to the famed Blue Mosque, where he prayed with the city’s grand mufti. He also visited the Hagia Sophia Museum, a onetime monumental Catholic church that was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in the 15th century. (The Turkish government turned it into a secular cultural attraction in the 1930s.)
The success of the sojourn was captured by the coverage that ran in the Turkish press on the Pope’s final day in Turkey. “The Pope Is Winning Hearts and Minds,” proclaimed a headline in the Turkish Daily News. Meanwhile Hurriyet reported that the Pope, “who earned sympathy with words in the spirit of an apology to Muslims, continued to surprise the world.” Just so.
Brazil May 9-14, 2007
The largest Catholic country in the world produced the smallest crowds for Pope Benedict, a fact the Holy Father may not have foreseen but was perhaps prepared for. In fact, it may have been Brazil’s curious admixture of spiritual malaise and restlessness that led the Vatican to choose it to host the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Holy Father spoke at a youth rally, the canonization of the first Brazilian-born saint and, of course, the bishops’ conference. Here he stressed the continent’s need for courageous, effective missionaries who can win hearts not by proselytizing — an unmistakable reference to South America’s aggressive Pentecostalist sects — but by “attraction.”
“Every Sunday and every Eucharist is a personal encounter with Christ,” he told his brother bishops. “When we break the bread at the Eucharist, it is he whom we receive personally.”
Austria Sept. 7-9, 2007
The Holy Father’s last international trip may have been his most relaxed and rewarding so far. While he saw to some Church business and received several ecclesial and political audiences, his main aim was rather more personal: a simple pilgrimage.
His destination was the Marian shrine at Mariazell on the occasion of its 850th anniversary. Its primary attraction is an old wooden statue of the Blessed Mother holding the Child Jesus in one hand while pointing to him with the other; high above them is a great crucifix.
He described the experience in a general audience upon returning to Rome from his summer vacation. “We contemplated God’s face in that child in his mother’s arms and in that man with his arms wide open,” he said. “To look to Jesus with Mary’s eyes means encountering God-Love, who for our sake was made man and died on the Cross.”
So it was that the Holy Father ended his last international trip on the same note he struck to begin his first: evangelization and catechesis.
Next stop: America.