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Actions Speak Louder Than Words: The Pope in New York
By John Feister
From the moment the pope stepped lightly off Shepherd One, his visit would prove full of welcome surprises.


By the time the pope arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport on Friday, April 18, the news media were buzzing with stories of his warm, supportive audience with victims of clerical sexual abuse the evening before in Washington, D.C. During his three packed days in New York City, Pope Benedict XVI would show again and again acts of compassion, in the midst of thoughtful reflections about—and gentle challenges to—the Church in the United States.

And what energy! This man, the day after his 81st birthday, practically skipped off the plane! His easygoing, courteous, gentle manner would hold until the end.

During his pastoral visit to the Archdiocese of New York, he would stop at nine scheduled public events, speaking both to people whom the world deems important and to those whom much of the world ignores. St. Anthony Messenger was part of the horde of media.

The pope addressed a special session of the United Nations, led a Mass for clergy and religious at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and again at star-studded Yankee Stadium, and was sent on his way by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. Benedict prayed at Ground Zero. He made time for the oft-ignored Catholic youth who flocked to New York from around the United States, for seminarians, for an important meeting with Jewish leaders.

He had a brief, warm encounter with a group of disabled children and their parents. This may have been the least-reported appearance (there was very little space in the small chapel for media). But his presence among these beautiful children, their families and caregivers holds a key to understanding Benedict’s papacy.

In this little snapshot of Pope Benedict XVI in New York, we’ll look first at highlights of his carefully crafted speeches, then reflect on the more symbolic, dramatic actions of the pope.

The speeches were, on the whole, easy to understand—another stereotype-breaker for this former university professor! They tell us what this pope wants the Church in America, other faith groups and the United Nations to hear at this moment.

His address to the United Nations was the fourth time a pope has addressed the assembly, the first being the historic address by Pope Paul VI on the Feast of St. Francis (October 4) in 1965, and the following two by Pope John Paul II in 1979 and 1995. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s invitation to Benedict was the occasion for this U.S. visit.

Pope Benedict repeated previous popes’ themes of the need for global solidarity and justice, the reduction of global inequalities and the value of the United Nations. But he also struck some new ground. He talked about environmentalism and the need to harmonize ethics closely with scientific research, especially in the area of reproduction.

“Notwithstanding the enormous benefits that humanity can gain,” he said, “some instances of this represent a clear violation of the order of creation, to the point where not only is the sacred character of life contradicted, but the human person and the family are robbed of their natural identity.”

These themes are seen most accurately in a broad context, he noted: “Likewise, international action to preserve the environment and to protect various forms of life on earth must not only guarantee a rational use of technology and science, but must also rediscover the authentic image of creation.”

Affirming this year’s 60th anniversary of the groundbreaking Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he repeated an oft-recognized call from the Catholic Church: the fundamental right of religious liberty. He ended with a reference to his recent encyclical, Saved in Hope, and noted that the Church is happy to be associated with the United Nations. Reminiscent of his beloved predecessor, Pope John Paul II, he concluded (to sustained applause) with greetings in English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Russian: “Peace and prosperity, with God’s help.”


Themes of Life

The day before Passover, in this Jewish population center, there was a historic, first-ever visit of a pope to a U.S. synagogue, Park East Synagogue, in midafternoon. Considering deep concerns over the pope’s recent relaxing of restrictions on extraordinary use of the Tridentine liturgy—including a Good Friday prayer problematic to many—the visit and its warm reception were significant.

The pope presented a framed copy of a Hebrew manuscript from the Vatican Library, which was gratefully received. Then, in addition to the synagogue’s gift of a beautifully crafted Seder plate (for Passover), the pope also received a matzo loaf from a Jewish girl: He spontaneously noted he would eat the bread on Saturday evening.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier—himself an expatriate Austrian Jew who had survived the Nazis, to which youthful Joseph Ratzinger had been conscripted—was ecstatic: “Think about it!” he clued his congregation with glee, referring to the coming Passover celebration. “Your presence here, today, gives us hope...your message of conciliation has been heard around the world.”

At an ecumenical service that evening, held at the German-immigrant St. Joseph (Catholic) Parish, he was greeted by representatives of various Christian communions. Never one to shy away from difficult discussions, Pope Benedict acknowledged the Christian unity of those gathered, and noted that St. Paul’s challenge toward unity (the reading was Ephesians 4:1-6) is no less true for us today.

Then the pope pointed out some troubling trends in modern times, saying that “globalization has humanity poised between two poles.” On the one hand, there is interconnectedness and interdependency. “On the other hand we cannot deny that the rapid changes occurring in our world also present some disturbing signs of fragmentation and a retreat into individualism.” He noted that electronic communication, paradoxically, “sometimes has resulted in greater isolation.”

The pope also decried the spread of a “secularist ideology that undermines or even rejects transcendent truth.” Divisions among Christians, he added, create among non-Christians “confusion about the gospel message itself.” He challenged those listening to consider whether the full force of the gospel message has been weakened by a “relativistic approach” and overdependence upon personal experience.

Ultimately, he appealed to “sound teaching” and “sound doctrine” as ways to defend the truth. All this he said in a friendly and pastoral manner, praying for oneness of faith, hope and love, encouraging those listening that “this is the message which the world is waiting to hear from us.”

Before joining the press pool Saturday morning, I walk down to Fifth Avenue to see the crowds lining up for a glimpse of the pope, or even for a seat inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Well before 7 a.m., I encounter several O.F.M. friars from the Manhattan-based Holy Name Province. They would be among the clergy at the papal Mass.

I stop to talk with a group of women who had rapidly snapped up tickets, some months back, via the Internet. Patricia Spergel, a nurse at Manhattan’s Hospital for Special Surgery, tells me, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the pope and get a blessing, to be close to such a holy man—and to see all of that holiness in each of us, actually.” She, her mother and two friends from St. Thomas Parish in West Hempstead and Blessed Sacrament in Valley Stream (both on Long Island) will applaud with the crowd for almost four minutes at the start of Mass—not a typical Catholic experience!

In this long line, the sense of hope and expectation is palpable: The grandfatherly pope is making a big impression here in New York.

In his homily at St. Patrick’s, he used the magnificent Gothic architecture of the building as a lesson on the state of things. In a Church that many perceive as legalistic and institutional, he said, “Our most urgent challenge is to communicate the joy born of faith and the experience of God’s love.” He referred to the magnificent stained-glass windows of St. Patrick’s as reminders of the “mystery of the Church herself,” this “mystery of light.”

He spoke of today’s Church, the People of God, still suffering from divisions in the Church that followed Vatican II. “For all of us,” he said, those divisions “were one of the great disappointments which followed the Second Vatican Council.” Yet was not “unity of vision and purpose,” he asked, “the secret of the impressive growth of the Church in this country?” He implored the faithful to look to the future, to “hear what the Spirit is saying to us,” to move together “toward that true spiritual renewal desired by the Council.”

He mentioned again the sexual-abuse crisis, asking the Church to “respond with Christian hope,” praying that this will be a “time of purification” and a “time for healing.” He closed his homily by reflecting on the Gothic cathedral as a place of “unity born of the dynamic tension of diverse forces....” In the end, he said, “Let us go forth as heralds of hope...In this way, the Church in America will know a new springtime in the Spirit....”

He would continue his theme of hope the next day, during his homily at a packed Yankee Stadium. There, a stage/altar was set up around the infield with the center of action, a papal chair, at about second base. Ribbons of varying colors emanated from a papal seal over the pitcher’s mound.

In addition to congratulating the vitality of the Church in the United States, Benedict, at the ballpark, addressed key themes of this visit. One of them is the inherent conflict between democracy, which he praised deeply, and “authority and obedience,” about which “to be frank, these are not easy words to speak nowadays.” He implored his listeners to the “self-surrender which is part of the mystery of love,” for the sake of “real freedom.”

After more congratulations for the 200th birthday of the Archdioceses of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Louisville (Bardstown), he presented several challenging themes. More than a moment of gratitude for graces received, he said, this anniversary is a “summons to move forward with firm order to build a future of hope.” Praying “thy Kingdom come” connects to everyday life and rejects “a false dichotomy between faith and political life,” he said, quoting Vatican II. He applauded the Church in America for its “prophetic witness in defense of life, in education of the young, in care of the poor, the sick and the stranger in your midst.” On these solid foundations, he said, “the Church in America must even now begin to rise!”

When Benedict mentioned again the Church’s defense of the unborn, the crowd erupted into applause. Then he appealed to young people, whom he had engaged so energetically at a youth rally on Saturday, to consider vocations to the priesthood and to religious life, and the crowd heartily applauded.

At the end of his homily, the pope himself broke into a smile. A short summary of his talk in Spanish prompted another round of applause, answered by a warm smile from Benedict. The pope clearly was enjoying himself!

Actions always speak louder than words. Saturday afternoon Benedict attended a rousing youth rally on the grounds of St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, speaking to 25,000 young people from across the United States. Jokingly, he congratulated the crowd when they sang a birthday song: “I give you an A+ for your pronunciation of German!” he quipped.

But a highlight of the entire papal visit had happened only moments before, in the seminary chapel. There were gathered about 50 children with disabilities, along with parents or caregivers, from various agencies and parishes in New York.

I was among a small group of media lucky enough to cover this small but deeply significant event. We were seated in the choir loft at about noon. About an hour before the pope’s 4 p.m. arrival, children with various disabilities and their parents begin taking their places in the chapel, facing the center aisle, monastic style. The Archdiocesan Deaf Choir, in brilliant red robes, takes its place in the sanctuary.

Then, right on schedule, a roar of cheers in the hallway below signals new activity. Children and their parents, and choir members in the sanctuary, begin taking snapshots as Pope Benedict comes up the aisle.

He comes into the view of the choir loft, some 20 feet from us at the closest point. In a moving scene of warm touches and embraces with each of the children whom he can reach—one at a time—he slowly progresses toward the sanctuary. It is a most magnificent moment, when the pomp and circumstance of a papal procession give way to a vivid display of human compassion.

Here is the supposed creature of the ivory tower, the allegedly remote and harsh Joseph Ratzinger, stopping to hug a child with multiple disabilities, leaning over to hear the comments of a girl with cerebral palsy, rubbing a blessing onto the face of a child who has fallen asleep in her wheelchair, warmly smiling, warmly embracing the parents and caretakers as he passes.

Three perky students (Neyshadli Kenney, Lauren Kurtz and Caitlin Manno) step forward and offer Benedict a present, which he receives gratefully. After a short prayer service (including the presentation of a hymn, “Take, Lord, Receive,” in sign language), on cue he walks down the center aisle again, catching up with those he had missed the first time. Then he gives a short address and the service concludes.

I walk, afterwards, onto the chapel floor to talk with parents and caretakers, who are awestruck at what has just transpired. Beatrice Kurtz, mother of 11-year-old gift-giver Lauren, says, “I’m very happy that he took time to visit with kids with disabilities, because no pope has really taken that time before. It was such an honor.” In the middle of our interview, she runs off to find her daughter, who is checking out the sanctuary—“You guys can wait—I’ve got to know where she is!” (A choir member takes her under watchful eye.)

Angela Manno, mother to seven-year-old Caitlin, another of the three who had presented the gift to the pope, says she feels blessed. “I feel that God has chosen us for some reason to be here, to make a point, maybe, of how important these disabled children are to us.” Disabled children really do contribute to society, she adds, demonstrating that all of us are valuable people. “I think he just felt the need to bless these children,” she says.

She appreciates the pope’s noting the difficulty of raising a disabled child, “because it can get overwhelming at times. But every day, just a smile is a miracle to us—sometimes. It makes you realize just how important in life the little things are!”

At 9:30 the next morning, Sunday, at the World Trade Center site, the pope arrives, accompanied by Cardinal Edward Egan. A cold front has blown in overnight; a haze covers the tops of surrounding skyscrapers. The pope kneels in prayer on a prie-dieu, before a paschal candle at the head of a small square pool of water, deeply symbolic to Catholics. It’s a temporary shrine, reminiscent of a baptismal font. Here is the mystery of death and life, symbolically placed before the world as the pope visits the scene of tragedy. The pope’s prayer is personal, and quiet.

He lights the paschal candle after several attempts—the wind keeps extinguishing the lighter. Then he prays aloud: “...God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world: peace in the hearts of all men and women and peace among the nations of the earth....God of understanding,...we seek your light and guidance as we confront such terrible events....” He includes remembrance of the victims at the Pentagon and those in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

After blessing the small crowd, he returns to prayer, then receives, one by one, survivors and family members of victims of September 11, 2001, to the soothing sounds of a nearby cellist. One police officer is limping: The pope pays special attention to him. The pope exchanges comments with these women and men, clearly sharing compassionately. He clasps the hands of each one, listening. Then, via solitary popemobile, he slowly leaves.

Those few who had met with the pope remain behind for a small presentation by the archdiocese of a taper, a small cross forged from World Trade Center steel, a boxed memento and a chance to kneel at the pope’s prie-dieu, before the paschal candle, to whisper a prayer or two.

In weekend crowds, along the way, I had come across Msgr. Hugh McManus, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Scarsdale and an adjunct seminary professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary. He summarizes the pope’s strategy in this visit: “He’s doing a lot of reaching out, and he’s reaching out to marginalized people,” McManus says. “The parents of special-needs kids, for example, are so beat up—it’s so draining.” McManus knows—his goddaughter is deaf. “And they’re the neatest people in the world!” he adds.

Father McManus (he downplays “Monsignor”) observes that Benedict talked with victims of clergy sexual abuse—“That’s a beautiful thing!” Then Benedict spoke to Jews and “he made a point of talking and praying with other Christian groups—here’s a man, you may recall, who wrote Dominus Iesus,” the 2000 Doctrine of the Faith statement that was considered by many to go against an ecumenical spirit.

“He’s reaching out to these people whom you wouldn’t expect him to reach out to,” says McManus. “He’s not a rock star, like John Paul, but he’s likable. I think you’re going to find that he surprised the daylights out of everyone!”

By nightfall Sunday, after his final words, “God bless America,” Benedict is back on his Alitalia-provided jet, headed for Rome. During this first papal visit to the United States, his gentle, though challenging, words were warmly received. His actions spoke volumes.


John Feister is an assistant editor of this publication. A graduate of the University of Dayton, he holds master’s degrees in humanities and theology from Xavier University, Cincinnati.

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