We should not let Pope Benedict XVI’s visit be just another event sandwiched in between March Madness and the arrival of New England spring. Observers tell us that the United States is very important to Rome. By the standards of the rest of the globe, we are rich, powerful and the world’s dominant cultural force. Well over a fifth of the country is Catholic and growing.
Our 81-year-old scholar pope has prepared 17 speeches to deliver during his three-day visit to New York and Washington, D.C. -- one to the United Nations and 16 directed to his American audience.
In this column last month, we borrowed from John L. Allen’s excellent pamphlet, “10 Things Pope Benedict Wants You to Know,” and outlined five themes that Benedict XVI has been reiterating since he succeeded John Paul II. They are: God is love; Jesus is Lord; Truth and freedom are two sides of the same coin; Faith and reason need one another; and Eucharist is at the heart of the Christian life.
To get us ready fully to engage the pope’s message behind the media glitz of his visit, we will outline here the second five themes, from six to 10.
Sixth, the pope wants to dramatically underscore that the Church’s message [that is, Christ’s message] to the world is a positive one. That message will surprise many people on two counts. First, before becoming Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s job was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His was the first line of defense against theological error. He had to defend Catholic doctrine at a time when everyone from priest to parishioner seemed to be loudly defining their own versions of what the Church really is and how we should live as Catholics.
Second, many see our Church as a contrary force. We’re “against” gay marriage, a woman’s control over her own body, homosexuality [the love that has no name, but which people just won’t stop talking about!] and other contentious issues. On the contrary, since becoming pope, he has worked hard to get us to see that our faith rests on a deep “yes” and to move us beyond the hot-button “no” issues. He has continually reminded us that the “good news” of the Gospels is of God’s relentless love for us.
Seventh, the role of the Church is to form consciences and not political policies. In this our seemingly endless political season, it is useful to remember that God is neither a democrat nor a republican. As the pope sees it, his job is loudly and clearly to hold up moral principles, such as our individual responsibility to work to elevate the suffering of the poor. This is evidenced by the pope’s frequent directing our attention to the plight of Africans and the ravishes of the HIV virus. It was, therefore, no surprise to his intimates that when in 2006, the World Bank launched a 10 million dollar bond measure to immunize the children in poor nations, the very first bond was purchased by Benedict XVI.
Eighth, the pope is deeply committed to the revival of a strong Catholic identity. Since the Enlightenment and more recently with the arrival of a powerful secular culture, Catholics, like other Christians, have downplayed or abandoned those aspects of our faith, whether in our prayer life or our sex life, that didn’t quite “fit.” Our religious identity has been divorced from our public lives and is now a private affair.
One of the most observed meetings will be the pope’s speech to the leadership of Catholic colleges and universities, whom he has especially called to Washington. Nowhere has this loss of Catholic identity been more obvious and more detrimental than in the secularization of Catholic higher education. Colleges and universities that our grandparents and generations of priests and nuns sacrificed to build have been compromised on the altar of modernism. Instead of being intellectual centers of faith development, they have become poor and vulgar imitations of their secular counterparts. Worse, many have become centers of opposition to the pope’s teaching.
Ninth, the unity of Christ and the Church. It is increasingly common to hear people say that they love and admire Jesus Christ, but separate themselves from his Church. Their motto is, “Yes to Jesus. No to the Church.” They want to go to Jesus directly without the intermediary of the institutions of the Church with its rules, liturgies and bureaucracy.
The pope points out the clear and direct attempts Jesus made to establish his Church and prepare the Apostles to direct his family of faith. And like any human family, there are highs and lows, good periods and troubling periods. Good members of a family, however, are there both for glorious moments and the heartaches. So, too, with the Church. Benedict XVI tells us “Yes to Jesus means yes to his Church.”
Tenth, our pope is teaching us a lesson of patience. Edmund Burke, the 18th Century Anglo-Irish political philosopher said, “Example is the school of mankind and they will learn at no other.” While the first nine points above are found in Benedict’s writings, this tenth is found in his life, in his example.
After the death of John Paul II, many commentators led us to believe that our new pope would enter the scene like Christ cleansing the temple. We were told to expect Curia heads to roll and dissenting theologians sent scampering for cover. None of that has happened. Our humble and patient pope takes the long view. He is not about instant change, but about qualitative change in the hearts of the faithful.
Benedict’s visit is a special moment for the American Church. We should lend an ear.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I am still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill.