Sunday, April 20, 2008

Getting to Know the Pope

Polls showed that before Pope Benedict XVI arrived in the United States last week, most Americans had a favorable opinion of him, though even the majority of Catholics admittedly knew little or nothing about the pontiff.

But now, the pope's six-day journey has revealed him to Americans as a man whose affection breaks through his formality and who is passionate as well as intellectual. He did not come across as the sheep-cuddling shepherd some bishops had heralded, but rather as a protector who cared enough to take up his staff and confront the "very badly handled" clergy sexual abuse scandal and America’s "increasingly secular and materialistic culture."

His willingness to address the clergy sexual abuse crisis repeatedly, and right from the start of the visit on his flight to Washington, made a strong and positive impression.

"I think he's been very favorably received," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center in Washington. "The way he's grappled with the sex abuse crisis, meeting with victims of the abuse ... I think he handled it extremely well."

The 81-year-old former theology professor does not radiate the charm of the stage-trained Pope John Paul II, and he didn't really try to stoke the crowds' considerable enthusiasm. But he offered his toothy grin, tousled children's hair, impressed the sexual abuse victims he met privately in Washington and thrilled the relatives of Sept. 11 victims he saw after blessing Ground Zero yesterday. And in a warm, convivial scene, he became the first pope to visit an American synagogue.

His message to America, though hopeful, was harder-edged than predicted.

He asked the nation's Catholic bishops whether "our preaching lost its salt." At the White House, he called for "patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts" as he stood beside a president who had spurned the Vatican's call to deal with Iraq through the United Nations.
At an interfaith prayer service, he sidestepped the usual niceties about finding common ground and warned the assembled Christian leaders to ward off the forces of a secularized, do-your-own-thing religion.

"It was very forthright. It signaled a new level in the conversations," said the Rev. James Gardiner, director of the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center in Garrison and a veteran of interfaith activities. It said, "We're done with the nice stuff … I recognize some of the problems you have; I'm dealing with them myself."

To Gardiner, the turning point of the trip came even before Benedict arrived, when on his flight to Washington, he described his shame over the clergy sexual abuse crisis. That "changed his image," he said.

The public responded to Benedict "very warmly, and appropriately so," said Dan Bartley, president of Voice of the Faithful, an organization of lay Catholics urging reform in the church. "Whenever the pope visits the United States is a big moment for Catholics, and that's a good thing."

Bartley, a Hauppauge resident who attended the White House reception for Pope Benedict, said he was encouraged by what the pope had to say. "This is the first time that our church has acknowledged that our sexual abuse crisis was very poorly handled," he said, recalling a comment Benedict made to the bishops in Washington. " ...It's a start."

The pope's message was complex and often abstract; he never actually mentioned Iraq, for example. It was "more successfully read than listened to," and lacking sound bites or applause lines, Reese said. But it can be summed up in a metaphor the pope offered Saturday in St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Benedict pointed out the beauty of the Gothic Revival cathedral's stained glass windows, "which flood the interior with mystic light. From the outside, those windows are dark, heavy, even dreary. But once one enters the church, they suddenly come alive; reflecting the light passing through them, they reveal all their splendor."

The pope painted the outside world as a dark, uncomprehending place, "a world where self-centeredness, greed, violence, and cynicism so often seem to choke the fragile growth of grace in people's hearts."

His response was that only the mystical light of faith, found inside the church, could overcome a secular, me-first outlook that he saw as a threat to everything from international relations to Catholic colleges, the family, the unborn, the environment, fellow Christian churches and Catholic identity and devotion.

Another pope once famously used the image of church windows to make a different point: John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962, said the church's windows needed to be opened to let in some fresh air - a call to engage with the modern world.

If Benedict's metaphor implies an insular church, he made clear in his homily in Yankee Stadium that he was calling for greater engagement in the modern world, not a retreat.

He spoke about the familiar phrase "Thy kingdom come" in the Our Father. It "means working to enrich American society and culture with the beauty and truth of the Gospel," he said, "and never losing sight of that great hope which gives meaning and value to all the other hopes which inspire our lives."

Photos: Top, AFP/Getty/Lucas Jackson. Below, AP/Kathy Willens.

Benedict's Good-Bye: May God Bless America

To songs and cheers, Pope Benedict XVI said farewell tonight at the end of his six-day journey with the words, "May God bless America."

Thousands had gathered inside a hangar at Kennedy Airport, many people wearing ethnic dress to celebrate the diversity of the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens. In brief remarks, the pope said that one of the high points of his visit had been the opportunity to address the United Nations General Assembly.

"I give thanks for all that the organization has been able to achieve in defending and promoting the fundamental rights of every man, woman and child throughout the world, and I encourage people of good will everywhere to continue working tirelessly to promote justice and peaceful co-existence between peoples and nations," he said.

The pope also spoke of his visit to the World Trade Center site. "My visit this morning to Ground Zero will remain firmly etched in my memory, as I continue to pray for those who died and for all who suffer in consequence of the tragedy that occurred there in 2001," he said. "For all the people of America, and indeed throughout the world, I pray that the future will bring increased fraternity and solidarity, a growth in mutual respect, and a renewed trust and confidence in God, our heavenly Father. "

Vice President Dick Cheney, in the official send-off, praised the pope's visit to the lower Manhattan site. "You have moved us in particular by your visit to Ground Zero," Cheney said.

Pope Benedict returned to the theme of his trip in his remarks. "I encourage you to continue bearing joyful witness to Christ our Hope, our Risen Lord and Savior, who makes all things new and gives us life in abundance," he said.

Photo: Pope Benedict XVI at Mass in Yankee Stadium. AP Photo.

Ethnic Send-off for Benedict

Thousands of people took part in a celebration today at Kennedy Airport as they readied a send-off for Pope Benedict XVI in a conclusion to his six-day visit to Washington and New York. The airport celebration marked a chance for the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Queens, to take part in the papal visit. The ceremony was a celebration of the church's diversity. Photos above show, from top, Joo Myung Lee of Queens; Nayeli Hernandez, with members of the Knights of Columbus Fourth Degree Guard; and Paulina Posluszna, 12, center left, and her eight year old sister Patricia, center right, both of Brooklyn, wearing Polish national dress.
Photos: AP.

Pope is upbeat in Yankee Stadium

In an upbeat homily in Yankee Stadium, Pope Benedict XVI praised the growth of the Catholic Church in America as he celebrated the 200th anniversary of the archdioceses in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Louisville.

"From a small flock," he said, "the Church in America has been built up in fidelity to the twin commandment of love of God and love of neighbor."

Baltimore is the mother of the Catholic Church in America. In 1808, the four new dioceses were created as the church gradually took root. After recounting the growth of the church with waves of immigration, Benedict added: "Today's celebration is more than an occasion of gratitude for graces received. It is also a summons to move forward with firm resolve to use wisely the blessings of freedom, in order to build a future of hope for coming generations."

During his homily, the pope focused on words in the Our Father, "Thy kingdom come." He applied that prayer in a way that seemed to cover many of the issues he addressed during his visit, including the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Praying "Thy kingdom come," he said, "means not losing heart in the face of resistance, adversity and scandal. It means overcoming every separation between faith and life, and countering false gospels of freedom and happiness. It also means rejecting a false dichotomy between faith and political life ... It means working to enrich American society and culture with the beauty and truth of the Gospel, and never losing sight of that great hope which gives meaning and value to all the other hopes which inspire our lives."

Celebration at Yankee Stadium

In the photo above, a priest and police officer dance during the concert before the Mass that Pope Benedict XVI celebrates today at Yankee Stadium on the final day of his six-day visit to America.

Photo: AP/Julie Jacobson.

Voice of the Faithful: It's a Start

The head of Voice of the Faithful, an organization of lay Catholics seeking reforms in the church, says he is encouraged by Pope Benedict XVI’s visit and hopes American bishops will embrace what he said about the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

"For the most part we’ve been encouraged by what Pope Benedict has has had to say," said Hauppauge resident Dan Bartley, president of the 35,000-member organization. "This is the first time that our church has acknowledged that our sexual abuse crisis was very poorly handled …It’s a start."

But, he said, " We’re still in a situation where the underlying issues that caused the sexual abuse crisis in the first place remain unaddressed. Bishops are still not accountable to the people they serve."

Voice of the Faithful was formed in 2002 in response to the church's cover-up of sexual abuse by pedophile priests. Bartley said he and other officers of the group were present at the White House welcoming ceremony for Pope Benedict. They were not invited as representatives of Voice of the Faithful, he said, but "By coincidence, all of our national leadership was there."

In his address to the nation’s Catholic bishops last Wednesday, Pope Benedict said that the sexual abuse scandal had been "very badly handled." He was quoting Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The pope later met with victims of clergy sexual abuse.

Bartley said he was disappointed with the reaction Bishop William Murphy, leader of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, expressed when quoted in Newsday on Saturday. "He hasn’t reached the point of acknowledgement that the pope has, and that’s very disappointing," he said.

Voice of the Faithful had sent a letter to Pope Benedict on April 4 that sought concrete steps in response to the sexual abuse scandal, which so far has cost the U.S. Catholic church more than $2 billion in damages. The group asked that he seek the resignations of bishops who repeatedly reassigned abusive priests and that he ask U.S. bishops to require financial disclosure in their dioceses.

"The underlying issues are still there," Bartley said. "The lack of lay involvement, the lack of accountability for bishops … The bishops of the United States have to embrace what Pope Benedict said. Otherwise we’re back to square one."

File Photo: Dan Bartley.

Reflection: Pope's Prayer at Ground Zero

Since close to half of the residents of metropolitan New York are Catholics, it was inevitable that the response to a tragedy as great as the fall of the World Trade Center towers would often be expressed in the language of their faith.

It was expressed in the shrines that sprang up immediately after the attack on September 11, 2001 – quickly assembled collections of candles, statues of angels and saints, mingled with photos of the victims.

It was expressed in the haunting images – of the lifeless body of the beloved Fire Department chaplain Father Mychal Judge, of steel crosses amid the twisted wreckage.

It was expressed through the Catholic-tinged cultures of the New York City police and fire departments and in the funeral Masses of the rescue workers who were killed.

It was expressed through a mayor, a man who once had considered the Catholic priesthood, as he found words for unspeakable losses: "more than we can bear."

It was expressed in the music of Bruce Springsteen, an artist who, as Father Andrew Greeley has written, exemplifies the Catholic imagination. "Come on up for the rising," Springsteen sang. And: "May your faith give us faith/May your hope give us hope/May your love give us love." [Update: A song that Ronan Tynan performed during a concert before the papal Mass in Yankee Stadium.]

And now it has been expressed by the pope:

O God of love, compassion, and healing,
look on us, people of many different faiths and traditions,
who gather today at this site,
the scene of incredible violence and pain.

We ask you in your goodness
to give eternal light and peace to all who died here –
the heroic first-responders: our fire fighters, police officers,
emergency service workers, and Port Authority personnel,
along with all the innocent men and women
who were victims of this tragedy
simply because their work or service
brought them here on September 11, 2001.

We ask you, in your compassion
to bring healing to those
who, because of their presence here that day,
suffer from injuries and illness.
Heal, too, the pain of still-grieving families
and all who lost loved ones in this tragedy.
Give them strength to continue their lives
with courage and hope.

We are mindful as well
of those who suffered death, injury, and loss
on the same day at the Pentagon and in
Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Our hearts are one with theirs
as our prayer embraces their pain and suffering.

God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world:
peace in the hearts of all men and women
and peace among the nations of the earth.
Turn to your way of love
those whose hearts and minds
are consumed with hatred.

God of understanding,
overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy,
we seek your light and guidance
as we confront such terrible events.
Grant that those whose lives were spared
may live so that the lives lost here
may not have been lost in vain.

Comfort and console us,
strengthen us in hope,
and give us the wisdom and courage
to work tirelessly for a world
where true peace and love reign
among nations and in the hearts of all.

Photo: Pope Benedict XVI kneels in prayer after arriving at Ground Zero. Getty Images/Chris Hondros.