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America, Meet Pope Benedict XVI
By Susan Hines-Brigger
When he visited Washington, D.C., in April, Pope Benedict XVI introduced himself to American Catholics with a message of hope and healing.


Welcome to America
Coming Into His Own
Chance of a Lifetime
Addressing the Sex-Abuse Issue
An Intimate Mass for 46,000
Reality Check
An Unexpected Meeting
Bigger Than Just Catholicism
A Powerful Presence, Message


Massive crowds, screaming teens and adults with tears streaming down their faces. No, it wasn’t a rock concert or a Hollywood movie premiere. It was the reaction of thousands of people who gathered for the first visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States. He visited Washington, D.C. (April 15-17) and New York City (April 18-20). St. Anthony Messenger covered the pope in both cities.

During his time in the nation’s capital, the pope went to the White House, celebrated Mass at the new Nationals Park and met with five survivors of clergy sex abuse. He also addressed the U.S. bishops and Catholic educators, and took part in an interreligious event at the Pope John Paul II Center. But while Pope Benedict’s multiple mentions of the sex-abuse crisis may have grabbed the headlines, perhaps the bigger story was the reaction of American Catholics to the pope.

For many, Pope Benedict is an enigma. He is a quiet theologian, who was referred to as “God’s rottweiler” when he headed the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 to 2005. Some would call him the polar opposite of Pope John Paul II, whose charismatic personality seemed a perfect fit with American culture. Extrovert versus introvert. Actor versus professor. On any given day, guess who will draw more people’s attention? But then Pope Benedict showed up, and changed minds and hearts.


Welcome to America

On the day of the pope’s arrival, thousands of people gathered at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to greet him. Even President George W. Bush came out to the base to greet the pope, a first-ever for the president.

Staff Sergeant Jason McGrath and his wife, Lori, brought their three children, Angelina (three), Nicholas (two) and Evan (four months) to see the pope. Jason has been in the military for almost six years and is stationed at Andrews. When asked why they decided to come out for the pope’s arrival, Lori quickly answered, “Well, first and foremost, we’re Catholic and he is the leader of our Church.”

Students from Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, were also on hand to greet the pope. The school’s band entertained with pieces such as “Beautiful Savior.”

Vincent Harrington, a junior at Bishop McNamara, is part of the band’s wind ensemble. He said that, even though he’s not Catholic, he understood the significance of the event. “It’s a tremendous honor to even be in the presence of the pope. So I just wanted to take advantage of this,” said Harrington.

When the pope’s plane touched down 10 minutes early, the crowd erupted with cheers and waved tiny yellow and white Vatican flags. Cheers again erupted when the pope emerged from the plane and rather quickly—for an 80-year-old man, as many in the crowd noted—made his way down the stairs from the plane.

After briefly meeting with the president inside one of the buildings on base, the pope was whisked away as part of a 24-car motorcade. Following his departure, onlookers milled about, taking in what they had just experienced.

Bishop McNamara senior Catherine Donley summed up the event, saying, “It was amazing. It’s great to see the head of state and the head of your faith not 60 yards away.”

By the second day of his visit, any thoughts that Pope Benedict would languish in the shadows of his predecessor were certainly put to rest.

On the morning of his 81st birthday, the pope visited the White House. President Bush told the pope, “You will find in America people whose hearts are open to your message of hope. And America and the world need this message.”

The pope told those gathered that he came to the United States “as a friend, a preacher of the gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society.” He praised Americans for their many contributions, but issued the reminder, “Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility....The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility toward 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.”

The pope and president met privately, where they discussed issues such as the situation in the Middle East and immigration.

Afterward, Pope Benedict traveled back to the apostolic nunciature in the popemobile, surrounded by throngs of people who gathered along the route hoping for a glimpse of the Holy Father.

Stephanie Frausto, who was covering the event for the West Texas Catholic, the paper for the Diocese of Amarillo, said seeing the number of people who stopped to catch a glimpse of the pope was “profound.

“Watching all walks of life come together as one body right there on Pennsylvania Avenue was the most surprising,” she said.

Later that afternoon, the scene played out again as the pope traveled from the headquarters of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. And there certainly was no doubt that the thousands lining the streets surrounding the basilica were there to see their pope.

Lisa Bartus from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, sat on the sidewalk in front of the basilica with her husband, David, and sons, Gary and Patrick, waiting for the popemobile to pass by. They had also gone earlier in the day to catch a glimpse of the pope on his return trip from the White House. The boys were on spring break from school, so the family had a perfect opportunity to travel to see the pope. Gary and Patrick’s favorite part? “The popemobile.”

On the lawn surrounding the basilica, families spread out on blankets, tossed baseballs and even blew bubbles. People crowded around the souvenir stand that was selling items ranging from T-shirts to rosaries, as well as the refreshment stand, thanks to the sunny spring day. People lined up to have their picture taken with a large cutout of Pope Benedict XVI, and spontaneous recitations of the Hail Mary erupted from the crowd.

As the crowds waited for the pope to arrive, they chanted back and forth.

“When I say holy, you say father.”





The crowds kept it up, chanting “Viva...Papa” and “Happy...Birthday.” It had the feel of a pep rally.

Marsha Davis of Woodbridge, Virginia, sat on a blanket and leaned against the barricades on the lawn of the basilica to wait for the pope. Her friend had a second ticket and asked Marsha if she wanted to come along. The irony, she said, was that she was seeing the pope in Washington and then leaving in a week for a vacation to Rome, as well as Assisi.

This was the second time Marsha had been fortunate enough to see a pope in person. When she was in high school in 1965, she saw Pope Paul VI in New York.

In reflecting on this papal visit, Marsha said, “I know as Americans we don’t always agree with everything the pope says. But there is an outpouring of love and a respect for the institution and the hierarchy, despite all the problems that we have. We have to understand that life is tough for everybody, whether it’s for the priests or the pope or regular people. And there may be controversy, but in the end the main thing is we all have to stick together.”

As the pope’s arrival grew closer, people began gathering along the steel barricades. When one woman offered to let another squeeze in at the front, the woman refused, saying, “That’s all right. I just want to be in his presence.”

Inside the basilica, the pope once again addressed the issue of sex abuse that has plagued the Catholic Church in the United States.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. bishops, told the pope, “The consequences of the dreadful sin of sexual abuse of minors by some priests and of its being sometimes very badly handled by bishops make both the personal faith of some Catholics and the public life of the Church herself more problematic.”

The pope followed his lead, reiterating that the situation was “sometimes very badly handled.” He then added, “It is vitally important that the vulnerable always be shielded from those who would cause harm.” He praised what the bishops have done so far, but pointed out, “If they are to achieve their full purpose, however, the policies and programs you have adopted need to be placed in a wider context.”

He posed the question, “What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today? We need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society, so that a sound moral formation can be offered to young people and adults alike. All have a part to play in this task—not only parents, religious leaders, teachers and catechists, but the media and entertainment industries as well.”

The following morning, the sun rose on the brand-new Nationals Park, revealing a beautiful day for a baseball game—or a papal Mass. With the home team on the road, the park was transformed into a cathedral with a massive altar occupying center field. At 5:15 a.m. the gates opened and people began trickling in, making their way to their seats, to the long lines for the confessionals, which opened at 6 a.m., or the nearest concession stand for a cup of hot coffee.

Then at 9:15 the announcement was made that the pope had arrived. The crowd went wild. A 250-person choir stationed in the left-field stands launched into a chorus of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” as the pope made a lap around the field’s perimeter in the popemobile. He leaned out the side of the vehicle to wave to the crowds who were waving their yellow and white Vatican flags.

During his homily, the pope praised the long history of Catholicism in America, and then encouraged Catholics to reaffirm their faith. He also noted that the dioceses of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Bardstown (Kentucky) are celebrating their 200th anniversaries.

“I pray, then, that this significant anniversary in the life of the Church in the United States, and the presence of the successor of Peter in your midst, will be an occasion for all Catholics to reaffirm their unity in the apostolic faith, to offer their contemporaries a convincing account of the hope which inspires them (cf. 1 Peter 3:15), and to be renewed in missionary zeal for the extension of God’s Kingdom. The world needs this witness!”

He also addressed the sex-abuse crisis for the third time in as many days. But this time he implored all Catholics to do their part to help foster healing in the Church.

“Today, I encourage each of you to do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation, and to assist those who have been hurt. Also, I ask you to love your priests, and to affirm them in the excellent work that they do. And above all, pray that the Holy Spirit will pour out his gifts upon the Church, the gifts that lead to conversion, forgiveness and growth in holiness,” he said.

He ended by saying, “Those who have hope must live different lives!”

But even amidst the joy of the Mass, there were still Catholics confronting difficult issues, such as school closures. Francis Stevens of Petersburg, Virginia, was making the rounds at Nationals Park, trying to drum up attention for the plight of his son’s school.

St. Joseph Catholic School had been told that it would be closed unless it could raise one million dollars by April 21. Stevens said they had raised $400,000, but he had hope that they would make their goal.

On April 21 the school, having reached its goal, was told that it would be able to stay open. Stevens, who referred to the school as “the little engine that could,” called reaching the goal “a miracle.” He added, “The task of making sure it doesn’t happen again is going to be great, but we’re up for the challenge.”

When this trip was first announced, many people criticized the fact that the pope was not visiting Boston, the archdiocese often considered to be the epicenter of the sex-abuse crisis. And although the pope spoke repeatedly about the crisis, victims’ advocates said the lack of a meeting with those who had been abused was a gaping hole in the pope’s itinerary.

In fact, such a meeting did unexpectedly take place on Thursday afternoon when the pope met “a small group of persons who were sexually abused by members of the clergy,” and listened to their stories, according to the Vatican. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, who was also at the meeting, presented the pope with a book containing the first names of the approximately 1,000 people who had been abused by clergy in that archdiocese during recent decades.

Bernie McDaid, who was abused in the 1960s and ’70s by then-Father Joseph Birmingham, told CNN about his reaction to the papal Mass at Nationals Park earlier in the day. “Today’s [papal] Mass did something. I don’t go to Mass, but today I went with my mother, and his sermon there and his apology about the sexual abuse blew me away, and I had tears in my eyes that I wasn’t expecting to have. It was an incredible moment for me.”

On the final night before he left for New York, Pope Benedict continued to reach out to others. That evening he met with a group of Catholic educators at The Catholic University of America and gathered at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center with approximately 200 interreligous leaders.

But that meeting was not the only evidence that the pope was crossing religious boundaries with his visit. Kristine Kilbride, of Alexandria, Virginia, a lifelong Episcopalian, said watching the Mass at Nationals Park had a profound impact on her. She said the pope’s visit, which she believes came at a much-needed time, brought inspiration across the faiths.

“It made me feel much better about the fact that Christianity is alive and well. Even as an Episcopalian, it was a moving moment to see how touched the crowd was.” She said she was especially moved “when he bent down and kissed what looked like a newborn during the recessional. I thought I would cry because I thought how proud I would be if that were my daughter, Katie.”

But as powerful as the pope’s many events were, even Catholics who weren’t able to attend them were just as touched by the pope’s visit and message.

Kelli Nienaber of Alexandria, Virginia, had been following news of the papal visit in the local media. Being 15 weeks pregnant with twins, she said it wasn’t in the forefront of her mind. That was until she went to work the morning of April 16.

“As I drove up 18th Street and crossed Pennsylvania Avenue, the parade barricades lined the streets and people had already gathered three to four deep with signs and cameras. I guessed this would be the route the pope would take to the White House later that morning, and I briefly wondered if I should check his schedule to see about walking the two blocks from my office to watch him drive by.”

But when she came out of the elevator into her building, she heard the sirens and figured she had missed her chance to watch the parade along Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Then I realized that the sirens were much closer than two blocks away. Suddenly traffic on K Street stopped and about 50 vehicles ranging from motorcycles to minivans to SUVs passed by with sirens blaring and lights flashing. They were headed the wrong direction so I knew the pope wasn’t with them, but thought it might be possible that they were en route to pick him up for the trip back to the White House.”

She says she stood on the sidewalk and cried.

“It was a little revelation that with all I have going on with my life that there’s a powerful presence making sure I remember to pause and pray and trust that everything will be O.K. It’s not really about the pope or his trip to the United States. It’s about what he represents—faith, hope and love.”


Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor of this magazine, who describes covering the papal visit as “the experience of a lifetime.”

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