April 22, 2008
From the biblical Samson to the soldier on today’s blood-drenched battlefields, from rescue workers in the midst of disasters to ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, courageous individuals have been held up as examples of the best in human nature. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle canonized courage as the "handmaiden of all virtues." For him, courage guaranteed all other virtues. Plato and Thomas Aquinas likewise extolled courage as indispensable for the moral life.
In his remarks welcoming the Holy Father before his address to the bishops, Cardinal George remarked, “It takes courage at any time and in any place to profess one's faith in Christ from within his body, the church…Bishops have served the church in the United States for over 200 years, and the context of their ministry and of Catholic life here was often one of suspicion. Our faith was not pure, our church was unbiblical, our allegiances uncertain.” American history has not been without its prejudice against Catholics. The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States made very clear the call of Catholics in today’s culture to remain thoroughly Catholic and, as Catholic, work with openness and love for the common good of all.
As a bishop in communion with the Bishop of Rome, I was excited to travel to Washington to hear the Pope speak to all the bishops of the United States. The Holy Father is unafraid to profess our faith in an increasingly secularized world. He speaks the truth to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Benedict XVI is extraordinarily courageous.
On April 16, I left Penn Station in Newark as dawn was just creeping over the horizon. My excitement grew as I met people along the way. In Washington, I left the Amtrak train and headed to the Metro. I must have looked like a novice traveler pulling my suitcase behind me. A woman directed me in the right direction to the Yellow Line. Another lady on the train noticed that I was trying to read the template of metro stops. She was gracious enough to make sure that I made the right connection to the next train.
Next a young gentleman who had been in the Air Force started talking to me. The gentleman was Catholic. He noticed the ring. Then he expressed some surprise to see a bishop schlepping through the metro. Before he left at his stop, he asked a woman in military uniform to make sure that I got off at the right station. She began talking, as he had, about the Pope and the Church and faith. The conversation increased my enthusiasm for the papal visit. She even accompanied me to the front door of the hotel. Everybody I met along the way in Washington and New York had smiles because the Holy Father was visiting. And so did the bishops who were eager to hear the words of the Vicar of Christ.
Pope Benedict did not disappoint us. The Holy Father tackled the issues facing the Church in America with honesty, compassion and hope. At a time when the country is so divided over how to treat the stranger among us, he had the courage to recall our own history. “From the beginning, [Americans] have opened their doors to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (cf.
Sonnet inscribed on the Statue of Liberty). He challenged us to welcome the immigrants, to support them and to help them flourish in their new home. Welcoming the stranger is at the heart of divine love. We were all estranged from God and He made his home among us so that we could be one with him in Christ.
The Pope acknowledged that religious faith is part of the cultural landscape of America. But he did not gloss over the reality that secularism threatens to destroy our religious heritage that goes back to the Founding Fathers. Today, while there is a deep respect for the freedom of religion, there is also the subtle influence of secularism that divides faith from behavior. The Pope called on us not to treat religion as a private matter.
As Christians, we are to let our faith permeate all our behavior and decisions in our private and public life. We have something very good to offer for the common good. We cannot be cowered into remaining on the periphery of our country’s life. As the Pope said, it takes “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. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good (cf.
Spe Salvi, 24).”
Even before the Pope set foot on American soil, the media was focusing much attention on what his response would be to the sexual abuse scandal that has taken its toll on the life of the Catholic community. While still on the plane, the Pope answered them directly. With forthrightness and balance, he addressed the issue at length in his meeting with the bishops. He spoke about it in his homily at Washington Nationals Stadium. He met privately with victims, just as bishops have been doing throughout this country. Again he addressed the issue in his homily to priests, deacons and religious in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The Pope called the abuse of minors a countersign of the Gospel that causes shame. He acknowledged the sin as a breach of trust, a betrayal of the priesthood. He spoke courageously to the issue by reminding us of the need “to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged.” In response to the Pope’s statements and meeting with victims, some news reports chose to air the opinion of some who either do not know or choose to ignore all the efforts that the Church in America has done since the crisis broke in 2002.
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People has established measures that are unparalleled in society for dealing with the horror of child abuse. A National Review Board of competent laity oversees the implementation of these measures. Dioceses are audited for compliance regularly. Every reported instance of sexual abuse of minors is handed over immediately to the county prosecutor. Each diocese has its own review board to assess alleged instances of sexual abuse. During the investigation of a credible accusation, clergy are removed from ministry.
Counseling is provided for victims. When the victims agree, bishops have been meeting with them in an effort to begin the healing process. All clergy and laity who work with minors in a church context have background checks and prevention training. No other sector of society has responded so comprehensively to the problem of sexual abuse of minors, not even our public school system where the media has reported a high instance of this crime. At every level of her life, however, the Church has acknowledged the sin as well as the continual need for purification and healing.
In the face of the repeated stories of the scandal by the media, the Pope, who spoke directly to the issue, clarified that “the overwhelming majority of clergy and religious in America do outstanding work in bringing the liberating message of the Gospel to the people entrusted to their care.” He also noted that the work done by the Church to deal with the abuse of minors is already bearing good results not just to those within the Church but to society itself. He has the courage that comes from faith, the courage to face all sides of the issue, even to mention the fact that the violence and pornography in the media are against the protection of all children in society.
During his visit, Pope Benedict addressed many important issues: the mission of Catholic institutions of learning to provide a truly Catholic education; society’s need to respect human rights and to work together through international diplomacy for justice and peace; the need for clergy and religious to be respectful of diversity, yet united in faith and love; the witness of today’s youth; and the gift of the vocation to the priesthood and religious life. In each instance, those who listened to his words found both inspiration and encouragement. His frank discussion of these issues brought a breath of fresh air to America. And, why not! Where there is truth, there is the Spirit of God breathing new life and the hope of something new.
Some headlines called him “the Pope of Hope.” He truly is. He has shown us that there is hope, because there is power and strength and grace beyond our failures and human weakness. In every word and in every action, Pope Benedict kept directing our attention to Christ. In his homily in Yankee Stadium, he reminded us that “when we put on ‘the mind of Christ’ (cf.
Phil 2:5), new horizons open before us! In the light of faith, within the communion of the Church, we also find the inspiration and strength to become a leaven of the Gospel in the world. We become the light of the world, the salt of the earth (cf.
Mt 5:13-14), entrusted with the ‘apostolate’ of making our own lives, and the world in which we live, conform ever more fully to God’s saving plan.”
The Holy Father has focused our hearts on the Lord, on his Gospel and on the gift of divine love given us in the Church. In his own words, “On these solid foundations, the future of the Church in America must even now begin to rise!”
God Bless Pope Benedict XVI