Months ago, when we planned to go all out for the U.S. papal visit and World Youth Day, we dubbed our coverage “The World Meets Benedict.” But before long, that started to seem a little presumptuous. After all, the Pope himself dubbed his visit “Christ Our Hope.”
As we launched Pope2008.com, our blogsite covering the papal events; as we put together stories for the Register; as we planned features for our sister publication, Faith & Family magazine, as our own Circle Press published the book Benedict of Bavaria; one thing became very clear: The world already knew Pope Benedict XVI.
After all, he had been Pope since 2005 — nearly the equivalent of a full presidential term. Before that he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for decades. We already knew that the old canards about him weren’t true. He was caricatured as a stern figure hurling anathemas. That wasn’t him.
We already knew him, from his first encyclical, as a deep thinker about love, and, from his next, as the “Pope of hope.” We already knew him as the brave Christian witness who traveled to Istanbul in the wake of Muslim fundamentalist riots. And we already knew him as a lover of the liturgy who wanted nothing more than to deepen Catholics’ worship.
But there were some things we didn’t know. We had to see him for ourselves, in our churches and on our streets, to learn them.
We didn’t know that he had a profound pastoral touch. As we followed the Holy Father around Washington and New York, we kept finding people who were moved by their encounters with the Pope. He would lock eyes with them, touch them gently, and communicate peace wordlessly.
We also didn’t know that Benedict’s deep concern for the victims of abuse was such that he would want to make it the centerpiece of his visit. He mentioned it in formal remarks at least six times on his trip, and his visit with victims of abuse — a seventh instance of the theme — caught almost everyone off guard.
We also didn’t know Benedict’s immense, “John Pauline” optimism. The previous Pope spoke of great things to come. He promoted the New Evangelization, which for him was nothing less than the re-Christianization of the Western World. He organized the Great Jubilee for the whole Church. He told us to prepare for the new springtime of the faith.
But Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had predicted a chastened, smaller church. When he became Pope Benedict, we felt a bit as if our high hopes were a dream we once had, but had outgrown.
We didn’t know Benedict would come to us and revive them all, calling us once again to the New Evangelization in a “great jubilee” for America to prepare for the new springtime of the faith.
We also didn’t know how much Benedict loves America, though we could have known it. It was there to read in more than one interview. But all of that seemed abstract — until we saw him bound down the airplane stairs, delighted and eager to be here.
Throughout his stay, one of the most common observations commentators made was that Benedict was clearly glad to be here. He never seemed tired in public; the reports of those who witnessed the last event of each day matched those who witnessed the first: He was a sprightly, alert and engaged man.
He was very forthright about his feelings for America, also.
When he spoke at the White House, he praised America’s founding principles. At each of his Masses, he reminded us that the Church’s presence in America is the result of the Holy Spirit’s efforts. At Yankee Stadium, he even gave Americans our marching orders: Build the Kingdom of Christ in the world.
First: Build the Kingdom in business, media, science, education; everywhere. “Praying fervently for the coming of the Kingdom also means being constantly alert for the signs of its presence, and working for its growth in every sector of society.”
Second: Build the Kingdom first in yourself, through a passionate love for Christ that looks at the Church supernaturally. “It means facing the challenges of present and future with confidence in Christ’s victory and a commitment to extending his reign,” he said. “It means not losing heart in the face of resistance, adversity and scandal.”
Third: Build the Kingdom through an integral, authentic life, not a compartmentalized one. “It means overcoming every separation between faith and life, and countering false gospels of freedom and happiness,” he said. “It also means rejecting a false dichotomy between faith and political life, since, as the Second Vatican Council put it, ‘there is no human activity — even in secular affairs — which can be withdrawn from God’s dominion.’”
“The World Meets Benedict” suddenly seems to fit after all. We did meet Pope Benedict XVI in a new way this year.
But for that meeting to be more than just a touching memory, we need to take up the Pope’s challenge. We need to do as he says, to make sure that the world meets someone far, far more compassionate, wise and brave than Pope Benedict.
Next, the world needs to meet the one his visit was named for: Christ our hope.