There is so much excellent reporting and commentary on Benedict XVI’s visit to the U.S. that it is hard to keep the pointers to a useful two or three.
I am still amazed at the reception Benedict received and the enthusiasm that met him everywhere he went. For a nation allegedly in the grip of the “new atheism,” it sure seemed that there were a few million Zacchaeuses running ahead to catch a glimpse of the successor to St. Peter going about the work of Jesus Christ in the 21rst century.
It may be that Benedict’s messages and his meetings mark the moment when the Roman Catholic Church in America began its recovery from the the sex abuse scandal, and began as well to act consistently with the confidence and moral clarity that long distinguished it before disastrous years of indifference to the scandal in its midst, the fecklessness on such issues as President Reagan’s bold challenge to the Soviet Union, and the rudderlessness that has marked much of the change that followed Vatican II. Benedict is such an unlikely fountain of charisma that the enormous outpouring of affection for him must be a long submerged affection for and dedication to the Church he represents –a church of clarity, certainty as to truth, and compassion, and of courageous witness and a commitment to service, especially to those least able to defend themselves. In other words, a Church built on Christ’s courage and example.
As Benedict himself acknowledged, there is still an enormous amount of rebuilding left for the Catholic leadership and laity in the U.S., and new leadership is still urgently needed in many dioceses. Recovering the sense of mission among the Catholic colleges and universities is obviously a priority for the pope, and an effort that will be ongoing long after his pontificate is ended.
The struggle with America’s deep attachment to the pleasures of abundance, its episodic acceptance of its responsibilities as the world’s great economic engine and last resort, and its malign elements free to divert, mock and destroy assures that the country will always be struggling to do the right thing and often failing to do so. But the pope’s message at the White House was a brief but powerfully focused appeal to all Americans –Catholic and Protestant, Christian or not, believer or atheist– to keep in mind America’s mission in the world:
“Mr. President, thank you for your gracious words of welcome on behalf of the people of the United States of America. I deeply appreciate your invitation to visit this great country. My visit coincides with an important moment in the life of the Catholic community in America: the celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the elevation of the country’s first Diocese — Baltimore — to a metropolitan Archdiocese, and the establishment of the Sees of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Louisville. Yet I am happy to be here as a guest of all Americans. I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society. America’s Catholics have made, and continue to make, an excellent contribution to the life of their country. As I begin my visit, I trust that my presence will be a source of renewal and hope for the Church in the United States, and strengthen the resolve of Catholics to contribute ever more responsibly to the life of this nation, of which they are proud to be citizens.
“From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation’s founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the “self-evident truth” that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement. In our time too, particularly in moments of crisis, Americans continue to find their strength in a commitment to this patrimony of shared ideals and aspirations.
“In the next few days, I look forward to meeting not only with America’s Catholic community, but with other Christian communities and representatives of the many religious traditions present in this country. Historically, not only Catholics, but all believers have found here the freedom to worship God in accordance with the dictates of their conscience, while at the same time being accepted as part of a commonwealth in which each individual and group can make its voice heard. As the nation faces the increasingly complex political and ethical issues of our time, I am confident that the American people will find in their religious beliefs a precious source of insight and an inspiration to pursue reasoned, responsible and respectful dialogue in the effort to build a more humane and free society.
“Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience — almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad. The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate. In a word, freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Few have understood this as clearly as the late Pope John Paul II. In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in his native Poland and in eastern Europe, he reminded us that history shows, time and again, that “in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation,” and a democracy without values can lose its very soul. Those prophetic words in some sense echo the conviction of President Washington, expressed in his Farewell Address, that religion and morality represent “indispensable supports” of political prosperity.
“The Church, for her part, wishes to contribute to building a world ever more worthy of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God. She is convinced that faith sheds new light on all things, and that the Gospel reveals the noble vocation and sublime destiny of every man and woman. Faith also gives us the strength to respond to our high calling, and the hope that inspires us to work for an ever more just and fraternal society. Democracy can only flourish, as your founding fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation.
“For well over a century, the United States of America has played an important role in the international community. On Friday, God willing, I will have the honor of addressing the United Nations Organization, where I hope to encourage the efforts under way to make that institution an ever more effective voice for the legitimate aspirations of all the world’s peoples. On this, the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the need for global solidarity is as urgent as ever, if all people are to live in a way worthy of their dignity — as brothers and sisters dwelling in the same house and around that table which God’s bounty has set for all his children. America has traditionally shown herself generous in meeting immediate human needs, fostering development and offering relief to the victims of natural catastrophes. I am confident that this concern for the greater human family will continue to find expression in support for the patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts and promote progress. In this way, coming generations will be able to live in a world where truth, freedom and justice can flourish — a world where the God-given dignity and rights of every man, woman and child are cherished, protected and effectively advanced.
“Mr. President, dear friends: as I begin my visit to the United States, I express once more my gratitude for your invitation, my joy to be in your midst, and my fervent prayers that Almighty God will confirm this nation and its people in the ways of justice, prosperity and peace. God bless America!”
Rarely does an entire country get a week-long tutorial on its blessings and its duties. Benedict XVI gave such a seminar, and we are all the better for it.