Vincentian Father David O’Connell, president of The Catholic University, has been involved in making invitations, helping to secure the campus and even preparing Pope Benedict for the speech he will make to Catholic educators.

Father O’Connell spoke to Register senior writer Tim Drake, who will be covering the Pope’s April 17 visit.

Who was invited to the Pope’s speech at Catholic University?

“Save the Date” letters were mailed to the presidents of Catholic universities and colleges in the U.S. on Dec. 12, 2007. We also sent letters to residential archbishops and bishops of every diocese asking them to send the name and title of the highest-ranking individual responsible for Catholic education to attend.

Some dioceses have vicars, others have superintendents or secretariats. Everyone has now received a formal invitation to the event and, in fact, entry tickets and instructions are being sent out on a daily basis to those who RSVP.

Because we are hosts, we have the opportunity to invite our board of trustees and deans and some students. There will also be 30 from the Pope’s entourage, and about 60 media in the room, of whom 40 are in the Vatican media pool.

What can you tell me about the event?

We’re expecting about 600 people in the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center’s Great Room. The room has a capacity of about 800 but we had to make room for a stage, a small choir that will greet the Pontiff and, of course, for TV cameras and photographers.
It’s a very carefully planned, invitation-only event. People are being conscious of Pope Benedict’s age. He will turn 81 when he’s in the United States, so they’re being careful not to overburden him.
He will arrive at the entrance to the university center. I will greet him there along with the chancellor and chairman of the Board of Trustees. Students, faculty and staff will be gathered outside.

The Pope will not say anything publicly. He’ll wave and greet the crowd. Then we’ll go into the building. Each host has been allowed to introduce the Pope to 10 people, so on his way into the venue, I’ll introduce him to 10 people. Then we’ll go into the Great Room.

I’ll welcome him, he’ll speak, and we’ll exchange gifts. Then he’ll leave and go to the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center for the interfaith dialogue meeting. There will be no question-and-answer session.

What’s been the biggest challenge of organizing this event?

The biggest issue we’re all facing is security. We live in a time where this is the first thing we need to consider. That has become quite involved and complicated.

Questions are being raised, such as: where does he ride in the Popemobile, where in the limousine? How much has to be kept confidential?

We need to be concerned about the spaces around the buildings where he will be. Anyone who will be in a room with the Pope has to have a security pre-screening.

What adjustments have you had to make on campus?

Any time the Pope travels, it’s an extensive proposition. When I first heard about the Pope’s visit on April 17, I couldn’t say anything to anyone, but I declared the day of the visit to be Founder’s Day — a day off for the students. April 10 is actually Founder’s Day, but as a university president you can make these kinds of executive decisions. Of course, the truth became known later once we could officially announce the visit.

Later on, we decided to close the university for a second day, April 16, because the Holy Father will be visiting the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which adjoins our campus, and, with all the necessary security provisions, it would have been difficult to conduct classes that day. The plus for our students is that they’ll also have a chance that day to see the Holy Father as well as on April 17.

Do you have any ideas what the Pope may speak about?

When the Pope travels, the place that’s lucky enough to host him is frequently asked to suggest bullet points to the Holy Father so that they can be incorporated into the talk. Archbishop Donald Wuerl and I worked on several pages of ideas and sent them over through the papal nuncio to help brief the Holy Father on the concrete situation here in case he wanted to address any of the particulars from on site.

Among the ideas we presented was the issue of concern about moral relativism and its adverse impact on our society and culture, and the importance of Catholic colleges and universities providing for students the tools necessary to confront moral relativism. This is a theme that the Holy Father has addressed a number of times.

With respect to Catholic schools, there was an acknowledgment of the sacrifices that parents make these days to provide a Catholic education, the enormous role that religious women have played in the U.S.

We also addressed the need for Catholic campuses to be strong not only in Catholic teaching and doctrine, but also the development of faith through vibrant Catholic ministry and coherent residence and student life. Those were the things we recommended.

What has been the attitude of the students?

We’re thrilled that he’s coming and we’re planning a full day of activities associated with his visit to campus. We’ll have a huge screen set up outdoors so that in the morning students can watch the papal Mass live at our new baseball stadium, Nationals Park. This will be followed by a movie and musical entertainment.

When the Holy Father comes to CUA, students will be able to greet him, watch his speech on the giant screen, and then see him off in his Popemobile. As he passes by another part of campus, there will be a separate viewing area set aside for Catholic students from other local universities that I have invited. It will be a great day and a great moment in history for the university.

Senior writer Tim Drake

is covering the Pope’s visit

to Washington and New York.