Pope Benedict XVI spent five days in America and five days in Australia this year. But those 10 days have had a disproportionate impact. Each trip introduced two increasingly secularized countries to a gentle Pope who clearly reminded them of the dangers of forgetting about God. His message: “Christ Our Hope” in America and “Pray for a New Pentecost” in Australia. There is “something sinister which stems from the fact that freedom and tolerance are so often separated from truth,” the Holy Father told the youth in Australia. “This is fueled by the notion, widely held today, that there are no absolute truths to guide our lives. Relativism, by indiscriminately giving value to practically everything, has made ‘experience’ all-important. Yet, experiences, detached from any consideration of what is good or true, can lead, not to genuine freedom, but to moral or intellectual confusion, to a lowering of standards, to a loss of self-respect, and even to despair.” In the United States, the Holy Father gave 11 public addresses. In Australia, he gave 12. Both visits began with media interviews aboard the flight from Rome, during which the Pope discussed the clergy sexual abuse crisis. That topic dominated the first three days of the Pope’s U.S. trip and led to a great deal of speculation about whether he would meet with victims of sexual abuse.
The Pope’s words culminated with his powerful example of love in action when he met with victims of abuse at the Papal Nunciature in Washington, D.C. That meeting, which was arranged by Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, was emotional for all and headed off the secular media concentration on that issue, allowing the Pope to address other issues of importance to the Church and the world.
Of all the addresses, however, the most memorable moments from each trip were the unscripted ones.
In New York, the Pope made a late-night visit to the streets of the city to greet a crowd of young people who had gathered to sing “Happy Birthday” (his birthday was April 16). Following a Mass for priests and religious at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Pope departed from his scripted remarks to say, “I will do all possible to be a real successor to Peter, who was also a man with all his faults and sins, but who remains finally the rock for the Church.”
Australians were taken by the Pope’s encounter with several indigenous animals and his kissing of some babies prior to the final Mass at Randwick Racecourse.
In both trips, a media transformation — from cynical to hopeful — took place.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which analyzed the news coverage during the Pope’s U.S. trip, more than half of the coverage focused on the impact of the clergy sex abuse scandal.
Prior to the U.S. trip, many media speculated that the Pope would have harsh things to say, specifically in reprimanding Catholic colleges and universities during his address to educators and administrators at The Catholic University of America. Instead, the Pope offered an address centered on the importance of truth, faith and reason.
“What did strike me was how happy and comforted educators felt after the Pope’s visit and address. They were somehow led to believe that the Pope intended to reprimand them,” said Catholic University president Father David O’Connell. “Instead, he offered a beautiful and encouraging message about the work of Catholic education in our country. His gentleness had an impact and, I believed, opened many minds and hearts.”
“Certainly, the statements made by Benedict when he was here were clear enough and gave encouragement to those who are trying to maintain the Church’s traditions,” said Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, professor of theology and theologian in residence at Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla. “At the same time, he is so kind and so gentle and so subtle that those who need to have perhaps some correction or reprimand don’t see that it’s there, even though it might be there.”
The high level of hostility by the media in Australia in the days leading up to the Pope’s visit was noted by many.
“It’s unique to our Australian media,” said Sydney Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher, coordinator of World Youth Day. “Some organizations in particular have used World Youth Day as a reason to bash the Church from the very beginning, when it was first announced.”
Yet, as the Pope arrived and the days went on, the media couldn’t help but be moved by the faith and the joy of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world. The media transformation that typically accompanies a papal trip took place.
Pope Benedict even noted the change in media coverage when he later reflected on World Youth Day.
“In the beginning, they looked at this World Youth Day with great skepticism, because, obviously, it could have created many problems in daily life, many inconveniences, such as traffic delays, and so on,” said Pope Benedict. “But in the end — and this was seen also by the media, whose prejudices were disassembled piece by piece — everyone felt caught up in the atmosphere of joy and of faith.”
The Pope’s U.S. trip seemed to leave a positive impression on Americans. In the U.S., the Pew Research Center conducted a post-papal visit survey. It showed that 61% of Americans had a favorable impression of the Pope, up from 52% prior to his visit.
The impact of the visits, however, extends far beyond opinion polls. While it’s still too early to tell, there are signs that the visits are having an impact upon the Church.
In the weeks following Pope Benedict’s New York visit, Father Luke Sweeney, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of New York, received dozens of calls from men inspired by the Pope’s visit to consider the priesthood.
Among them, 25-year-old Brooklyn police officer Nicolas Fernandez decided to turn in his police uniform for a cassock. Fernandez said that he was inspired by the work of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict’s visit to New York. He is now studying to become a priest at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y.
Additionally, Father O’Connell said that he’s noticed a number of Catholic colleges and universities have begun to host forums or conferences on Catholic identity and mission, specifically designed to reflect on Pope Benedict’s April message.
“I know this because those institutions have sent me programs and proceedings from these gatherings,” said Father O’Connell. “That never happened before.”
There’s evidence of an impact in Australia, as well. Since the Pope’s visit, young adult outreach efforts have increased. Attendance at Theology on Tap has been on the rise, and the apostolate has started in cities where it previously didn’t exist, such as Brisbane. In Sydney, Theology on Tap has regularly been attracting more than 500 young people to talk about faith-based issues.
Another lasting impact has been the continuing presence of religious sisters from communities in the U.S. Both the Nashville Dominicans and the Sisters of Mercy in Alma, Mich., have been asked to stay in Australia to teach and evangelize.
While a papal trip is always an event situated in time, it’s also far more than an event. It’s a dialogue.
“A World Youth Day is not merely a passing event,” said Pope Benedict. “World Youth Day … is a valid formula which prepares us to understand that in different perspectives and from different parts of the earth we are moving on towards Christ and towards communion.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.