Cardinal Francis George’s term as head of the U.S. bishops began in November, and so it falls to him to welcome Pope Benedict XVI to the United States on behalf of the nation’s dioceses.
He spoke with Register contributing editor Tom McFeely about what bishops expect from the Pope — and what the Holy Father might expect from them.
It’s days until the Holy Father’s trip to the United States. This is a very exciting time for Catholic Americans, isn’t it?
Oh, yes. It’s the first time he’s visiting our country as Pope, although he has visited our country before.
Have you had a chance to meet personally with the Pope since your election as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference?
No, the last time I met him personally was in October, just before the November election.
What do the U.S. bishops hope that the Pope’s visit can accomplish, in terms of helping address those priorities?
He’s going to speak to different groups. He’ll speak to the bishops in Washington. He’ll speak to priests and religious in New York. He’ll speak to the Jewish community in Washington and to Hindus and Muslims there, as well, and to Protestants in New York.
He wants to speak to young people — it’s the one thing that he told us in particular that he wanted to have on the agenda. He’ll do that in New York, at Dunwoodie seminary, to seminarians and to young people from all over the country. He’ll have the two public Masses.
I think in the course of those discourses, certainly to the bishops, he’ll bring up the sexual abuse scandal that has weakened the Church in this country and that we have to face in order to help victims and in order to restore trust. Of course, that’s only one part of what he will say, but I would expect he will address that.
For the rest, I would imagine he will talk to things that are central to his own pontificate: How do you take this mission from Christ and proclaim who he is in a society that is secularized, not in the same way as Europe but still with its own form of secularism, a society where truth is always relative.
In that context, it’s harder to preach a Gospel that says there are some absolutes.
He’ll address that, I’m sure, with great accuracy and sophistication. He’s done that elsewhere.
Beyond that, I’m not quite sure what else he’ll address, but he’ll speak in ways that will encourage the Catholics who are here. I’m hoping that from his appearance we’ll not only enjoy his visit but be left with a sense of joy in our faith when he returns back to Rome.
The Holy Father plans to meet with the leaders of Catholic colleges and the heads of diocesan education programs in Washington. Why has he singled out the subject of Catholic education for special attention during his visit?
He’ll be in Washington, and The Catholic University of America, which is the bishops’ university, is in Washington. He’ll be on the campus to speak to the bishops one day, and the following day he’ll be back on the campus to speak to the university presidents and the superintendents of schools.
Education is very close to his own heart — he was an educator much of his own life, before he became a bishop. He’s an intellectual and I think he will want, because we have so many Catholic universities in this country, more than in any other country, to try to reinforce their sense of Catholic identity.
I would imagine that’s his primary concern.
During his visit, do you think the Pope will discuss the implementation of the new English translation with the U.S. bishops, as well as other important liturgical matters such as implementation of his motu proprio regarding celebration of the Mass of Blessed John XXIII?
I don’t know if he’ll go into those details. I expect that he’ll speak to the liturgical renewal in at least general terms — what has come about because of it, what has been helpful, what has not been helpful.
I think he’s somebody who wants to look at it now and balance things, as we’ve seen. There’s an understanding behind those actions, and he’ll probably speak to that, but what is a genuine liturgical renewal, what are we about when we call for development in the liturgy — I think he’ll talk to that in a general way at least. He may talk to the specific elements you mentioned, but I’m not sure of that.
What’s the most important accomplishment the Holy Father hopes from this visit?
I think first of all that we should remember he’s coming … because that’s when he can address the United Nations General Assembly.
The popes have addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations since the Second Vatican Council, because that’s their secular counterpart, if you like. The Catholic Church is a global society, and the Pope is the visible head of a society that extends around the globe. He’s talking there to representatives of the political power of the world, although their power is very much more dispersed than is his own authority.
So the Pope is at home in a forum like the United Nations. And that’s one of the reasons why the popes generally support many of the initiatives of the United Nations, even when they vehemently disagree with some of the things that the United Nations does.
In principle, they are for a political mechanism for speaking to the whole world and for having the world act together in cooperation, particularly in containing violence and working for peace. That’s a concern always, and so he’ll address that, I’m sure, when he speaks to the United Nations.
Because he’s coming in 2008 means that, secondly, he can address the anniversaries in the Catholic Church here. Our first diocese, Baltimore, became an archdiocese in 1808 when four other dioceses were created — New York, where he’ll spend half of his visit or more, Philadelphia, Boston and Bardstown, Ky. [now Louisville].
He’s going to address those anniversaries. Certainly in New York he’ll do that. And in doing that, he’ll address everyone in the country by addressing the various groups we mentioned.
It’s going to be what you always see with a papal visit. The Pope, being the visible head of the Church and the successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ, elicits the faith of many people.
And it’s not just the visit of a world leader, it’s the visit of our spiritual pastor. Every Catholic has three pastors: the Holy Father, and his bishop, and then the pastor of the parish where he or she might live.
Visibly, the universal pastor is here. That draws forth the faith of many people, and I think he’ll want to try to strengthen that faith by doing what he does best, teaching.
I hope we’ll be more unified as a result of this visit. I’m sure we will be, because that’s his role — to preside over the churches and keep them visibly united in Christ.
Tom McFeely is based in
Victoria, British Columbia.