Prepare To Be Surprised
What Will (And Won’t Happen) During Pope Benedict’s Visit to the United States
By Raymond Arroyo
Judging from the early coverage of the forthcoming Papal visit , one would swear that Attila the Hun in a miter and red Prada shoes was about to stride onto American soil. “He’s coming to deliver a stern message,” “He’s cold,” “A Hardliner,” “He’s a mystery,” the scribblers announce. But for those of us who have spent time with Benedict XVI, watched him intently over several years, and more importantly absorbed the content of his teaching, Papa Ratzinger isn’t really a mystery at all. And the aforementioned clichés neither fit the man or his visit. In fact, heeding them could cause you to miss the point of his trip altogether.
First, a primer on Benedict XVI from the inside: It is true that this Pope is not the dramatic figure that his predecessor was. At heart, Benedict is a gentle scholar. But before he is quickly dismissed as an “enforcer” who knows where all the overdue books at the Vatican Library are, lets think about this for a minute. In an age of instant impressions and split second communications, here is a man who not only speaks with clarity and precision, but one who takes the time to think—deeply—and pray before he opens his mouth. This alone should garner him respectful attention. But that other leaders would follow his example.
Though Pope John Paul the Second is often remembered for his dramatic gestures-- those evocative acts that still linger in memory-- can the general public remember anything he said? Benedict on the other hand, during the first three years of his pontificate has managed to break through the cultural static entirely due to his utterances—his direct, provocative, original language. From “the dictatorship of relativism,” to his 2006 address in Regensburg (where he suggested that Islam had lost its reason and the West had lost its faith), Benedict is a quotable Pope, unafraid to cut to the chase and to start a conversation. Expect him to provoke quite a few during his American sojourn.
Pope Benedict has also learned well from his more than twenty-three years at the side of John Paul II. When he wants to underscore his message, Benedict is capable of unleashing a bold theatre of substantive acts. Think of his baptism of the Islamic journalist Magdi Allam in Rome this past Easter, or the image of the Pope silently praying beside the Grand Mufti in the Blue Mosque of Istanbul. When he wants to drive home a point, he can do so with a well timed elan that forces the world to listen. Those expecting a “cold,” “distant” papal visit to the US could be out of luck.
Benedict XVI believes that reason and a robust faith have the power to reshape culture and the heart of man. Throughout his career as a theologian and now as Pope he has committed himself to reinvigorating Catholic tradition and making the faith reasonable in the face of an unreasonable culture. This will be the thread running through his 11 addresses THIS/ NEXT week. But don’t look for quick solutions, Benedict will take the long view of what ails America and the prescriptions he offers will likely be slow acting medicine. Both his respectful engagement of Islam and the decision to make the old Latin Mass available to any who desire it are the actions of a Pope unafraid to stoke controversy, and willing to wait for results. These initiatives may take generations to bear fruit, but he has started them regardless of the short term discomfort.
Owing to tight security and the Pope’s age (he’ll be 81 on the second day of his visit) the general public will not have much of an opportunity to see him. There are only two public Masses: at Nationals Stadium in DC, and Yankees Stadium in New York. Both venues are ticketed. All the other events on the itinerary are invite only. So if you don’t have a ticket, stake out a place on a Popemobile route and hope for the best. For you folks coming to DC, find a spot near the Nuncio’s residence on Massachusetts Avenue and sit there. Welcome to the post 9/11 Papal experience.
As for what the Pope will say or do throughout his visit, here’s what I’ve learned over the last few weeks:
THE WHITE HOUSE MEETING: Though the president will greet the Pope when he lands at Andrews Air Force base on April 15th (the first time President Bush will ever greet a head of state on an airstrip), there will be no formal addresses. That will wait until the following morning, when the Pope offers his first words in America on the South Lawn of the White House before an invited audience.
Sources organizing the visit in Rome tell me that Pope Benedict will laud America for its innate religiosity, its generosity, and its commitment to personal and religious liberty. Forget the “reports” that the Pope will criticize the war in Iraq or rail at the president. This is not Benedict’s style. For the record, the Pope did in fact oppose the Iraq invasion and made it clear before his election that a “preventive war” could not be considered within the just war tradition. But that is now history. With the murder of Chaldean Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul just before Easter, and the April 5th drive-by slaying of an Orthodox priest in Bagdad fresh in his memory, the Pope will urge more protection for the Christian minority in Iraq. Whatever their feelings about the decision to invade the country, both the Vatican and Iraqi Christians are convinced that America must maintain a presence in the region to ensure the survival of their community and to give peace a chance to take root. According to the UN, before 2003 there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Today, owing to a mass exodus and the destruction of churches, the population has been cut by half. During his private meeting with the president, the Pope will surely raise the need to protect the weakened Christian remnant in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
A clue as to what Benedict will probably say at the podium can be gleaned from his words to Mary Ann Glendon, the new US ambassador to the Holy See on the day she presented her credentials to the Pope in late February:
“From the dawn of the Republic, America has been… a nation which values the role of religious belief in ensuring a vibrant and ethically sound democratic order. Your nation’s example of uniting people of good will, regardless of race, nationality or creed, in a shared vision and a disciplined pursuit of the common good has encouraged many younger nations in their efforts to create a harmonious, free and just social order. Today this task of reconciling unity and diversity, of forging a common vision and summoning the moral energy to accomplish it, has become an urgent priority for the whole human family.”
Compared with western Europe, the Pope sees America as a model of religious diversity and harmony, and he’ll likely say so. As a sign of how Benedict is regarded within the White House, the President initially proposed a formal state dinner to welcome the Pope. The Vatican declined, suggesting that it would be out of character for a Pope to attend such an affair. Nevertheless, a White House dinner in his honor (sans the Pontiff) is scheduled. The White House is pulling out all the stops for the Pope’s arrival. The fife and drum corps, hymns, a 21 gun salute, and a birthday surprise are all in the offing.
THE MEETING WITH BISHOPS: On the afternoon of April 16th the Pope will meet with his bishops in the crypt of the National Shrine—an ironic location if ever there was one. It calls to mind visions of the prophet Ezekiel who God commanded to go into a valley of dry bones and announce: “Ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord… Behold I will send spirit into you, and you shall live.” Sources in Rome, say that this is where the Pope will reflect on the sex abuse crisis--a crisis that has broken the hearts of millions of Catholics, cost the Church upwards of two billion dollars in settlements, and driven five dioceses into bankruptcy. I am told that Benedict’s message in the crypt will be “upbeat and spiritual” but “direct.” This could be a real news event, and the networks may miss it entirely.
Initially the meeting was to be private, with just the Pope and his bishops. Then a few weeks ago there came word that cameras were being brought in at the insistence of the Holy See. When I asked a high ranking Vatican official why the decision was made, he said: “We want the journalists to discuss what the Pope says, not what a few bishops say the Pope said.” In the past there have been communication difficulties between the former Cardinal Ratzinger and the bishops conference; particularly a 2004 Ratzinger letter touching on whether to grant communion to pro-choice politicians. When the Cardinal’s letter was revealed to the full body of bishops, much of the content was purposefully suppressed, or spun depending on your perspective. This time the Pope is leaving nothing to interpreters.
In the middle of a lengthy broadcast interview I conducted with Cardinal Ratzinger a few years before his election to the papacy, he identified “a weakness of faith” and a breakdown in “clear moral teachings” as the root causes of the sex abuse crisis. He is convinced that a loss of faith permitted sinful behaviors to be excused or ignored. This could well be part of his reflection on the crisis that has consumed the Church since late 2001. But don’t expect the Pope to read the Bishop’s the riot act. Any correction he offers will be gentle--but firm. I expect that we will witness what Mary Ann Glendon has called Benedict’s “pastoral eloquence” in the crypt that afternoon. We’ll see what becomes of the dry bones…
There is speculation that the Pope might meet privately with victims of priestly sexual abuse, but at this point it is only speculation. It is more likely that the public Masses could feature allusions to the sex abuse scandal and the toll it has taken on the laity.
THE MEETING WITH CATHOLIC EDUCATORS: The United States has more Catholic institutions of higher learning than any other country in the world. As the pope surveys an increasingly secular, relativistic culture, it is natural for the former professor to turn to Catholic education for some relief. Pope Benedict will address leaders from every CATHOLIC university and diocese in the US. If his previous speeches are any indication, Benedict will argue that academic inquiry and objective truth need not be mutually exclusive and can benefit from a balanced interaction. He will most assuredly make the positive case for truth and at some point unveil what I like to call the “truth in advertising” portion of the speech.
According to Father David O’Connell, the President of the Catholic University of America (the site of the April 17th meeting) the Pope will persuade University leaders to “promote and strengthen” their Catholic identity--in other words: to appear, act, and teach in conformity with Catholic tradition; to be what they claim to be: Catholic institutions. Father O’Connell should have some insight here. He was among those who were asked to send the Pope ideas to consider in advance of the meeting. Though this event will be watched principally by Catholics, the ramifications of the talk could reach far beyond Catholicism. Benedict is hoping that Catholic education, particularly higher education can be a cultural leaven that will at once challenge and enrich the wider society. No matter what the Pope says, or how mildly he says it, expect to hear wailing and gnashing of teeth from the old guard of the Catholic academic establishment.
THE INTERFAITH MEETING AT THE JOHN PAUL II CULTURAL CENTER: Aside from his address to the UN, this could be one of the most important speeches of Benedict’s American pilgrimage. Since the Pope quoted a Byzantine Emperor’s belief that Islam was an “evil and inhumane” religion in Regensburg, there have been concerns in some quarters as to whether this was an appropriate way to engage Muslims in a meaningful conversation. Whatever those concerns might have been, it seems the Pope has been vindicated.
As a direct result of the Regensburg speech 138 Muslim scholars wrote to the Pope requesting a dialogue with Christians. Now a permanent Catholic/Muslim forum has been established which will hold its first formal meeting at the Vatican this coming November. Saudi King Abdullah, the custodian of the Muslim shrines in Mecca and Medina has joined Benedict’s call for an interfaith dialogue and is supporting his efforts. There are suddenly negotiations underway to erect a Catholic church in Saudi Arabia and one has already sprung up in Qatar. This is astounding progress. To my eye, Benedict is the only world leader, secular or religious, with the credibility and the courage to engage Islam in a candid discussion about religious freedom and the imperative that faith should never be used to condone or encourage violence. He will very likely call not only Muslims, but all 200 religious leaders gathered at the JPII Cultural Center to join him in a common quest for honest dialogue, peace, and religious tolerance.
Following the talk the Pope will meet privately with Jewish leaders to offer his good wishes as they prepare for Passover. This is the first time a pope has personally offered such greetings to the Jewish community. The special meeting is meant to accent the close bond that exists between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people. To further underscore this special relationship, the Pope will drop by the Park East Synagogue in New York on April 18th as a sign of his “good will” at the start of Passover. This will be the first time a Pope visits an American synagogue. I think these meetings, along with his prayer at Ground Zero and the blessing of disabled people in Yonkers could comfortably be counted as part of Benedict’s “theatre of substantive acts.”
THE UNITED NATIONS ADDRESS: This is clearly the centerpiece of the visit and the first reason for the Pope’s coming. Benedict wishes to speak to the General Assembly and to the world. As he adds his voice to the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, look for Benedict to make the case that fidelity to the natural law is the best way to ensure that human rights are protected.
For years the Pope has proposed a universal moral code rooted in reason, springing from the natural law. It would be a CODE? morality all could subscribe to, regardless of faith. In February of 2007 the Pope said at a conference in Rome: "No law made by man can overturn that of the Creator without dramatically affecting society in its very foundation." Some version of this thought will likely be heard in the hundreds of headphones at the UN. Expect the pope to also urge member nations to extend basic human rights to the most vulnerable; particularly the unborn, the disabled, and the poor. The UN Permanent Observer, Archbishop Celestino Migliore told me recently that it is safe to assume that the Pope will remind the world that religious freedom is a salient human right and that religion can play a great role in advancing the cause of peace and freedom.
THE MASSES FOR THE MASSES: In an interview, Pope Benedict once told me that “the essential things in history begin always with small, more convinced communities. So the Church begins with twelve apostles…and this community itself is the future of the world, because we have the truth and the force of conviction.” The Masses at Nationals Stadium in DC and Yankees Stadium in New York will surely be opportunities for Benedict to confirm Catholics in their faith. He will be planting seeds that he hopes will blossom into the “future of the world.” Look for the Pope to mention the need for a personal encounter with the living Jesus in the clear, well-reasoned prose that made his recent book, “Jesus of Nazareth” an international bestseller. That Vatincanista extraordinaire, John Allen has characterized Benedict’s evangelistic approach as “affirmative orthodoxy.” Generally I agree, though I would term it: “Reasonable Orthodoxy” or “Vibrant Orthodoxy.” No matter what you call it, you’ll see it in spades at the two scheduled Masses (and throughout the other events).
Liturgically, as is his custom, Benedict will attempt to demonstrate the sacrality of worship and the powerful beauty of the Church’s tradition. Translation: don’t expect to see dancing girls on the altar or hear Radiohead tunes emanating from the choir. Reverence and decorum will be the watchwords of the Masses.
A number of Vatican officials have told me that the Pope will assiduously avoid politics throughout his American pilgrimage and focus instead on inspiring the faithful to reform their lives and society at large. It could be thought of as trickle down spirituality. This summary by Benedict of his visit to Brazil in 2007 nicely encapsulates what I think he will offer America:
“I encouraged them to recover everywhere the style of the first Christian community described in the Acts of the Apostles: assiduous in catechesis, the sacramental life and charitable works. I know the dedication of these faithful servants of the Gospel who want to present it fully without confusion, watching over the deposit of the faith with discernment; it is also their constant duty to promote social development, principally through the formation of the laity, called to assume responsibility in the field of politics and economics…. Only the one who meets the love of God in Jesus and sets himself upon this way to practice it among men, becomes his disciple and missionary.”
It is hardly a mystery at all. Benedict will do what all Popes do on these shores: call new disciples and missionaries into the hopeful vineyard that is America. At a moment when the country is confronted by economic downturns, terrorism, political instability, and a leadership vacuum, the Pope will offer hope. The measure of this trip’s success will not be found so much as in what the Pope does, as in the echo that remains after he does it. The response of those who hear him will tell the tale.
So watch this surprising (if not mysterious) Pope as he makes his way across your television screens this week, and keep your ears open.
Raymond Arroyo is a New York Times Bestselling author and the News Director of EWTN News. He has anchored more live papal events than anyone in the industry.