The Warrior sent our Catholic Beat Writer, Remington Tonar, to New York City for Pope Benedict XVI’s first visit to the United States. He begins this piece by giving an account of the Papal trip and then assumes a first person perspective when reporting on his experience in New York City.
“Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and mats so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them…and they were all cured” (Acts 5:15-16). In early Christianity, people crowded the streets to see Saint Peter, hoping to be cured or blessed by touching him, or even by standing in his passing shadow. Not much has changed in two-thousand years, as Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic visit to America demonstrated. The pope, who is the 265th successor of Saint Peter, brought hundreds of thousands of Catholic faithful from all over the nation to Washington, D.C. and New York during his apostolic visit to the United States.
His Holiness, along with the Bishops of the United States, chose “Christ Our Hope” as the theme for this historic visit, which marks Benedict’s first visit to the United States as pope. In his advance message to the United States before his arrival, the Pope noted that his mission in coming to America was to, “proclaim this great truth: Jesus Christ is hope.” This visit of hope comes in the wake of the much publicized sex abuse crisis, which has ravaged and devastated the Catholic Church in America, and amidst a culture of increasing secularism. The Pope told reporters onboard what has been dubbed Shepherd One, the Papal airplane, that he was “deeply ashamed” of sex abuse by priests and that he would, “do everything possible to heal this wound.”
His Holiness landed in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday April 15, where he was met at Andrew’s Air Force Base by President Bush. It was the first time Bush greeted a head of state outside the White House. Here, he was greeted by multi-lingual renditions of Happy Birthday, to celebrate the Pontiff’s 81st birthday on the April 16. After a short meeting with the President, the Pope retired for the evening. On his birthday, Wednesday, he journeyed to the White House for a more extensive meeting with Bush, and he was greeted by 12,000 guests on the South Lawn. Following this reception, the Pope met with the Conference of Catholic Bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. In his address to the Bishops of the nation he acknowledged the deep fervor for faith in the U.S., and prompted them to continue their fight against materialism, relativism and secularism. He also encouraged the Bishops to be proactive in combating sex abuse, and affirmed some of the new programs adopted to help combat abuse, but noted that, “the policies and programs you [the bishops] have adopted need to be placed in a wider context.” He tied these words into the need to educate children on authentic and moral Christian sexuality and the need to fight pornography and the “crude manipulation of sexuality” that plagues American youth today.
The following morning the Pope celebrated Mass at Nationals Park for almost 50,000 in attendance, telling the faithful in his homily to be a “leaven of evangelical hope in American society, striving to bring the light and truth of the Gospel to the task of building an ever more just and free world for generations yet to come.” Also on Thursday, the Pope visited the Catholic University of America, and addressed Catholic educators from around the nation. In his speech he noted that, “first and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God.” Beyond this, the Pope also affirmed that Catholic identity does not depend on statistics, nor can it “simply be equated with orthodoxy of course content.” Rather, Catholic identity should be measured by more, “namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith.” The Holy Father concluded by making it clear that while academic freedom is vital and important, using academic freedom to teach things contrary to the faith causes one to “obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission.” Thus, the Pope said, “teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice.”
Marquette’s own president, Rev. Robert A. Wild, S.J., was in attendance. Wild spoke with The Warrior and outlined some of the highlights of the Pope’s address. Wild applauded the Pope’s encouragement of those present to not be complacent in the search for truth, which manifests itself in Jesus Christ. He highlighted faith as an integral part of Marquette’s mission believing that Marquette does a good job of executing that mission of authentic Catholic faith.
“There are areas that we can do better in,” admits Wild, but the “search for truth is not an easy business,” and it is something that Marquette continues to strive for.
The Pope also held an interreligious prayer service on April 17 and met with leaders of the Washington, D.C.. Jewish community.
On April 18, the Pope traveled to New York City, where he addressed the United Nations in both French and English, speaking of the need to protect religious freedom and human dignity. The Pope also held a meeting of leaders from different Christian denominations at St. Joseph’s Church in New York where he expressed his desire for Christian unity and reaffirmed the existence of objective truth, as well as the need for not only spiritual, but doctrinal unity.
“A clear convincing testimony to the salvation wrought for us in Christ Jesus,” the Pope noted, “has to be based upon the notion of normative apostolic teaching: a teaching which indeed underlies the inspired word of God and sustains the sacramental life of Christians.”
A PERSONAL ACCOUNT
While the Pope was busy spreading his message of hope in New York, I was in the back of a full twelve passenger van traveling to see the Pope on Saturday, April 19. With us were Marquette students Scott Emerson and Matt Shireman, as well as other people not affiliated with the University. We embarked Thursday afternoon and spent that night in South Bend, Indiana, and arrived in New York City late Friday night and settled in at the Crotona tutoring center in the Bronx for the evening. The next morning we awoke early for Mass and then, after a short breakfast, made haste to St. Joseph’s Seminary where the Pope would be speaking later that afternoon in a rally of seminarians and young faithful from across the nation. During that time, His Holiness was celebrating Mass for clergy and religious at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
When we arrived, the field behind St. Joseph’s Seminary was mildly populated; Secret Service, state and local police were heavily present. We found a place on the lawn about thirty feet from the stage where the Pope would be speaking exclusively with the seminarians, who had preferred placement right in front of the stage, in front of us. The next few hours were spent watching and listening to the music and dance performances that had been arranged for entertainment. Some of the more notable acts included the Christian groups Third Day, Salvador, Toby Mac, and priest-rapper Stan Fortuna. The festivities concluded with a brief performance by Kelly Clarkson, who would later appear again before the Pope’s departure to sing Ave Maria to His Holiness. Despite our tickets coming with free food passes, our group collectively fasted, in fear of losing our plot of lawn if we moved to get food. Our hunger, in conjunction with the 70 degree heat which was exacerbated by the increasing number of spectators, made the several hours of waiting for the Pope rather arduous.
“The youth rally was a long day of being out in the sun, without food and with little water, surrounded by tens of thousands of other people,” says Matt Shireman, a senior in Engineering with whom I traveled. “But it was incredible to be a part of the crowd when the Holy Father arrived.”
Upon arriving, His Holiness first visited the seminary chapel where he blessed handicapped children in a gesture of the Church’s love for all persons, even those on whom secular society places less value. After this, he traveled via Pope-mobile down to the field where 20,000 seminarians and youth awaited him. While at St. Joseph’s, the Pope encouraged youth to model their lives after those of the saints. He poignantly urged that America’s youth develop a personal relationship with Christ and realize the expansive wonder and awe found in the Christian faith, stating that, “sometimes, we are looked upon as people who speak only of prohibitions. Nothing could be further from the truth! Authentic Christian discipleship is marked by a sense of wonder. We stand before the God we know and love as a friend, the vastness of his creation, and the beauty of our Christian faith.”
“The Holy Father spoke directly to the hearts of young American Catholics,” notes Shireman. “It was all a bit surreal.”
Being able to experience the presence of the Pope, the successor of Saint Peter upon whom Christ built the Church (see Matthew 16:18), at St. Joseph’s Seminary was indeed a surreal experience. An even more surreal experience, however, was being able to attend Mass celebrated by him. The following day, Sunday, we again awoke early to make our way to Yankee Stadium, where the Pope would be celebrating Mass. Close to 60,000 people were in attendance, and the enormous volume of people made getting to the appropriate gate assigned on our tickets difficult. Our seats were not as spectacular as those we had the previous day at the seminary; however we had a great view of the elaborate stage and altar that had been erected for the Pope’s visit. When His Holiness finally arrived at Yankee Stadium, driving around the edge of the field in the Pope-mobile, the excited crowd rose with jovial applause and shouts. Indeed, it was an exciting moment, to be part of a vast number of Catholic faithful who were all united in a very special way in the presence of the Vicar of Christ on earth.
“Mass with the Pope was an awesome experience,” says Scott Emerson, a sophomore in Engineering, who was also among my traveling companions, “just to be in his presence, along with thousands of other Catholics who are all cheering and exited about their faith…it’s amazing.” Emerson points out that the Pope’s homily was as inspiring as it was intellectually challenging. “We have to remember that this Pope is a scholar. His speeches and homilies are very intellectual, as well as deep and insightful.”
In his homily at Yankee Stadium, the Pope challenged the faithful to follow Christ’s footsteps, telling those present that, “true freedom…is found only in the self-surrender which is part of the mystery of love. Only by losing ourselves, the Lord tells us, do we truly find ourselves.”
On his last day in the United States, the Pope visited Ground Zero, where he prayed for God to grant eternal light and peace to those who had perished in the September 11 attacks. After his stop at Ground Zero, the Pope made his way to JFK International Airport, where Vice-President Dick Cheney awaited him as he finished his apostolic visit to America. He thanked America for its hospitality and professed his joy in the faith of the American Catholic community. Bidding farewell to our nation, he took his leave and asked that Americans remember him in their prayers, leaving us with the words: “God bless America.”