Americans greet the Pope with warmth and curiosity

By  Catholic News Service
  • April 16, 2008

{mosimage}WASHINGTON - As Pope Benedict XVI arrived here for the first North American visit of his papacy, the greetings ranged from a love-in to the critical to the just plain curious.

In fact, as Benedict touched down at Andrews Airforce Base outside the capital at 4 p.m. April 15, his visit was the talk of the town. Some 5,000 journalists were here filling the airwaves with everything from speculation on what he would say to reviews of the place of the church in American society. Over the next five days, until the Pope's departure from New York City on April 20, they would dissect every one of his words.

In a surprising precedent for a country with an official policy of strict separation of church and state, Benedict was greeted upon descending his plane by U.S. George Bush and his wife, Laura Bush, and Jenna, one of their twin daughters. The ceremony took only about 10 minutes and featured no public remarks, but marked the first time Bush had ever come out to the airport to greet a foreign leader.

The Pope's plane, an Alitalia aircraft dubbed “Shepherd One,” landed without incident on a bright and breezy spring day, sporting both the American and papal flags flying from the cockpit. Cheering and applause greeted the plane's descent from the 1,200 onlookers drawn from among the government, American prelates and invited guests.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said at an April 15 briefing before the Pope's arrival that Bush would tell the pontiff that "the hearts of the American people are open to the Holy Father's message of hope."

Pope Benedict "will hear from the president that America and the world need to hear his message that God is love, that human life is sacred, that we all must be guided by common moral law, and that we have responsibilities to care for our brothers and sisters in need at home and across the world," Perino added.

She admitted that the Pope and the president disagreed on issues such as the war in Iraq and the death penalty but said that "there is much more agreement between these two leaders than there is disagreement."

More firsts followed. On April 16, the Pope was officially welcomed to the White House with an elaborate outdoor ceremony on the South Lawn. Once again, Bush and other dignitaries joined in praising the Pope and welcoming him to the United States.

The 45-minute ceremony was followed by a private session inside the White House. There was a dinner later that day to honour Benedict on his 81st birthday, though the Pope was not there, having already been scheduled to attend Vespers at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (the Pope also has a longstanding practice of not attending events specifically honouring him).

And around Washington, as the Pope presided at several public events and rode through the streets in his Popemobile, he saw vast quantities of yellow and white flowers (the official papal colours) planted to mark the occasion.

Aside from the official festivities, two recent polls revealed that, with some exceptions, Americans are largely happy with the pontiff. A survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said that 74 per cent of American Catholics are well-disposed toward the Pope, while 52 per cent of all Americans feel the same way. Another survey by the Georgetown University Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate reported that 82 per cent of U.S. Catholics were somewhat or very satisfied with the Pope's leadership.

The feeling is reciprocated by the Pope, who has praised Americans for their vibrant religious life and the welcome they give to religious expression in the public square.

“America has been a nation which values the role of religious belief in ensuring a vibrant and ethically sound democratic order,” he told Mary Ann Glendon, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican when she presented her credentials to him in February.

But the visit was not just about warm feelings of bonhomie. Over the six days, the Pope was to address several different audiences, offering a range of visions firmly grounded in Catholic teachings.

After the White House pleasantries, Benedict faced a schedule that included:

  • a private Vespers and meeting with the 350 U.S. Catholic bishops in Washington's Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on April 16;

  • a public Mass in the Nationals Park in Washington;

  • a much-anticipated speech to the heads of more than 200 Catholic universities and other leaders of Catholic education on the campus of the Catholic University of America;

  • an address on April 18 to the United Nations General Assembly;

  • a public Mass in Yankee Stadium on April 20.

There were also meetings with other religious and ecumenical leaders, youth, seminarians and priests.

At press time, the Pope's main speeches were in the future. However, indications from the Vatican were that he was to address a number of issues, including abortion, immigration in the United States (particularly for Hispanics) human rights, the tendency of states to jump to military solutions for global disputes; and the role of religion in providing a moral foundation for public and private life.

Overall, however, Benedict's messages were clearly grounded in his profound appreciation of the love of God in His Son Jesus and compassion for human frailty.

“This is someone who doesn't talk down to (others), who treats them like adults and who understands that modern men and women are struggling with life's very hard questions and that there are not easy or simple answers to them,” Glendon told the New York Times.

American Catholics were intensely interested in the Pope's messages, even as many of them were critical of the institutional church's actions. The open wound of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, which rocked the U.S. church in 2002, still awaits healing. Numerous spokespeople for victims' groups called on the Pope to tell them how he was going to help them.

Anticipating the challenge, the Pope responded to a journalist's question on the flight over the Atlantic by saying he was “deeply ashamed” by the sexual abuse crisis. "We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry," Associated Press reported Benedict as saying. "It is more important to have good priests than many priests. We will do everything possible to heal this wound."

In fact, the sexual abuse issue was overshadowed by the Pope's entire message, encapsulated in his smiling humble manner and willingness to dialogue with people. As Archbishop Pietro Sambi, papal nuncio to Washington said, the trip would show Americans that Benedict is anything but “this tough, inhuman person” of popular imagination.

(With files from Catholic News Service)

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