I have never met a Pope. Some of my sisters here in the monastery have had that privilege, however brief. Sister Lydia was present at a private mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II and speaks often of being impressed by his simplicity and evident deep spirituality and faith.
I have known our current Pope only by reputation, first as Cardinal Ratzinger and then as a rather distant figure in his televised public appearances and his written words. As a highly relational and intuitive person, I always need a bit more than is provided at a distance to gain a sense of the person beneath the title and office. I must admit too that my limited knowledge of languages, especially in this case, presents an additional barrier.
It may seem an oxymoron for me to say that viewing him on television and at a distance at Yankee Stadium provided a more more up close and personal view. However, that is what I seem to have acquired. Many others far better informed, far more knowledgeable, have analysed this man, his theological stance, his Papacy. I cannot pretend to match them. I can only share my personal impressions.
Pope Benedict's remarks at every venue rang as well considered, true, and compassionate. (See the Vatican website for the full text of all of the Pope's remarks during his visit to the United States.) http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/travels/2008/index_stati-uniti_en.htm It was important for me to hear his words regarding respect for individual gifts, the need for communication, reconciliation and consensus building. I seemed to hear that it was good for us to discuss differences in mutual charity so that wounds could be healed and forward momentum restored. In his talk to the Bishops he said, "In a society which values personal freedom and autonomy, it is easy to lose sight of our dependence on others as well ass the responsibilities that we bear toward them. This emphasis on individualism has even affected the Church, giving rise to a form of piety which sometimes emphasizes our private relationship with God at the expense of our calling to be members of a redeemed community." Certainly this inter-personal responsibility in communal charity was expressed in Pope Benedict's repeated references to the clergy sexual abuse scandal and the systemic lack of protection for the vulnerable and neglect of the pastoral needs of victims.
His remarks throughout reflected an understanding of causes and consequences at the grass roots level. One could say that speech writers and other assistants would be responsible for this. However, the grammatical and logical constructions evident in the English versions of his talks indicate that they were originally written in German therefore suggesting his personal authorship. Due to my new ministry as vocation director for this community, I took particular note of his response at the meeting with bishops to a question regarding vocations. He said, "To my mind, much is demanded of vocation directors and formators: candidates today, as much as ever, need to be given a sound intellectual and human formation which will enable them not only to respond to the real questions and needs of their contemporaries, but also to mature in their own conversion and to persevere in life-long commitment to their own vocation."
There is much controversy surrounding the United Nations. Some ask if its time has gone by, if it is as much an expression of a lost hope as the League of Nations was early in the last century. Support from the Catholic Church is invaluable to an organization that is our last best hope for world peace. Benedict clearly expressed that support and at the same time spoke for the God-given and inalienable rights of all persons, particularly the right to expressions of faith in God. His remarks were mercy mercifully short but abundantly clear. In addition, here and elsewhere, were numerous references to the impact of globalization, that the effect of this phenomenon should not be limited to financial aggrandisement of the few but extend to a greater sense of the interrelatedness of all people and a corresponding responsibility for mutual personal advancement.
My greatest sense of seeing the man up close and personal came in his brief, off the cuff remarks to the congregation at St. Patrick's Cathedral just before the final blessing of the Mass. I have searched the print media for reference to these few but powerful words and have found none. I wish I could quote directly but I cannot. Pope Benedict expressed in sometimes halting extemporaneous English that St. Peter was a man with faults, a man guilty of sin, and yet chosen by Jesus to be the Rock on upon which the Church would be built. He went on to say the he too was an imperfect man, a man guilty of sin but that he would make every effort to continue, as Peter, to be a rock for the Church and all of us with the assistance of our prayers. These unscripted remarks say a great deal about the man.
The language of the Pope's remarks to the young people gathered at St. Joseph's seminary at Dunwoodie were perfectly geared to their experience, their cultural milieu and their challenges. His awareness of realities at the grassroots level was also reflected here in his instruction to seminarians; " I urge you to deepen your friendship with Jesus the Good Shepherd. Talk heart to heart with him. Reject any temptation to ostentation, careerism, or conceit. Strive for a pattern of life truly marked by charity, chastity and humility, in imitation of Christ...of whom you are to be living icons..."
Attending a papal mass at Yankee Stadium is indeed an experience to remember. My last time at the stadium was occasioned by the Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul in 1979. That took place in the evening and our tickets placed us high up in the stands. While just as well attended as this Mass with Pope Benedict, it did not have the added complications of strict post 9/11 security. Everyone was most patient and cooperative. We had to be. It took an hour to negotiate a visit to the facilities and to purchase some food. We were not permitted to bring food or drink into the stadium. It also took two hours for our bus (one of perhaps a thousand) to get out of the parking lot. And this time, as religious, we found ourselves in the second section of box seats behind and to the right of home plate - seats my son, a rabid Yankee fan, could never afford.
I find it awesome to be in a massive crowd so united in faith. Each of us was given a plastic bag containing the program, vocation literature from the diocese, a commemorative edition of the Gospel of Luke published by the American Bible Society, a plastic poncho, and copies of Magnificat and Catholic Digest. Also included was a yellow or white cloth napkin for waving to the Pope. Everyone knew exactly when to use them.
In his homily, Benedict spoke as he had in his address to the Bishops in Washington, D.C. of "rejecting the false dichotomy between faith and political life." He emphasized the distinguished history of the Church in the United States and the Archdiocese of New York in service of the poor, the sick, and the uneducated and repeatedly urged all gathered there to be "prophetic witness in the defense of life, in the education of the young, in care for the poor, the sick and the stranger in your midst."
In the end, I have grown in the sense that Pope Benedict does know and understand the American Church, that he appreciates our stubborn clinging to religious sensibility unlike western Europeans, and that charity in imitation of Jesus, this the primary expression of our Christian faith. We were privileged to see the compassionate, tender, humble and generous attributes of a person more commonly known for his great intellectual capacity and his introverted, somewhat stoic Germanic persona. It was a privilege to be united in faith by virtue of his presence and to be affirmed as we strive together to more closely follow our loving Lord and Redeemer, Jesus the Christ.
Photos of Yankee Stadium Mass appear below.
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