01-05-2008 - Traces, n. 5

Benedict XVI in the USA

An Extraordinary
Lesson of Method

From the bishops in search of answers about evangelization to the more skeptical and distant non-Catholics, everyone was surprised by a fact: a human encounter

by Lorenzo Albacete

At the end of his address to the bishops of the United States, Pope Benedict XVI answered questions from three bishops chosen in advance by the Episcopal Conference. The bishops agreed with the Holy Father about “the challenge of increasing secularism in public life and intellectual life” as shown by “Catholics abandoning the practice of the faith, sometimes by an explicit decision, but often by distancing themselves quietly and gradually from attendance at Mass and identification with the Church.” The bishops were essentially asking “how to confront these challenges pastorally and evangelize more effectively.”
They were raising a crucial issue, perhaps the most important one for this visit of the Pope to the United States. This was a question about method. This is where the problem of evangelization lies. There are programs of evangelization in most dioceses and many parishes in the United States. Still, the bishops’ questions suggest a concern about the results of all those programs. How effective are they, really, when nothing substantial seems to change? The Pope gave concrete answers to these questions, but perhaps the best answer he could have given is: “Follow me.” The Pope’s visit to the United States did more than provide the content for a new evangelization; it was a stunning lesson on the method required to carry it out effectively.
The first component of this method is the event of a human encounter through which an exceptional Presence awakens or fires up fundamental desires of the heart, perhaps mostly dormant or long suppressed, perhaps relentlessly seeking satisfaction. The attraction of this Presence sooner or later compels the question: “Is it possible to live this way?” Again and again, those who followed the Holy Father, from devout Catholics to hardened skeptics, described this kind of experience. Many had been taught to expect that Benedict XVI would not be up to the challenges of a visibility so foreign to his character (when compared to John Paul II, the professional performer). And yet, just observing him, not to mention meeting him, forced even professional cynics to admit that something unexpectedly fascinating was occurring. Many (including non-Christian believers) went so far as to refer to a divine origin of the Presence manifesting itself through the encounter with this humble man; others simply shed tears.
Of course, the most dramatic of these encounters was that of the victims of sexual abuse by priests. It is important to remember that the participants were not chosen because they were more “open” to reconciliation with the Church. All of them spoke of their total loss of confidence in a Church that had allowed their “spiritual abuse.” Moreover, they did not consider Joseph Ratzinger as particularly sympathetic to their demands. And yet, just being in his presence, holding hands or embracing him, listening to his voice–all of them emphasized the intensity of their physical contact–began to melt their hearts. From that meeting on, the content of much of what Pope Benedict said was, so to speak, filtered through that singular encounter.

The American experiment
Again and again, the Pope praised the American experience and affirmed the goodness and value of the American Dream. At the very beginning, speaking at the White House, he acknowledged, “From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. […] I am confident that the American people will find in their religious beliefs a precious source of insight and an inspiration to pursue reasoned, responsible, and respectful dialogue in the effort to build a more humane and free society.”
The second component of the Pope’s “method of evangelization” can be called affirmation. Americans love to be liked, but the Pope’s praise for the American experiment in founding and governing a country devoted to freedom was considered to be his real judgment, and not just a diplomatic tactic. In a way, it was an expression of   the affirmation that the abuse victims had experienced in their encounter with him. The third component of the “method” of evangelization pursued by Pope Benedict during his visit could be called “the making of the Christian proposal” itself. It begins with a judgment on the characteristics of the present moment in American history in light of the lessons learned from the experience of faith and its 2,000 years of history. Pope Benedict summarized the challenge facing the Church in the United States in words reminiscent of his address to the Latin American Bishops at Aparecida, Brazil. In spite of the vastly different social context from that of a Latin America tempted by Liberation Theology, the judgment was the same: “I believe that the Church in America, at this point in her history, is faced with the challenge of recapturing the Catholic vision of reality and presenting it, in an engaging and imaginative way, to a society which markets any number of recipes for human fulfillment.”

Witness of truth
Finally, the Pope made it clear everywhere that the purpose of his visit was not to propose an analysis of what is good and what is problematic or bad in American religiosity and the pursuit of the American dream. He is the Successor of Peter, he insisted. He came as a witness to Jesus Christ and the truth about His identity and mission. It was Christ who was behind the extraordinary encounter that the Pope’s presence in the flesh made possible. It was faith in Christ that allowed us to judge the circumstances that surround us and to recognize the true path to freedom. The Pope made this clear again and again to Catholics, other Christians, Jews, followers of other religions, agnostics, and atheists. In the United States, the name of Jesus is found everywhere, so the Pope made clear that the Jesus on whose behalf he had come was the founder of the Catholic Church. In the homily at Nationals Stadium in Washington, he said: “Christ established His Church on the foundation of the Apostles as a visible, structured community which is at the same time a spiritual communion, a mystical body enlivened by the Spirit’s manifold gifts, and the sacrament of salvation for all humanity.”
The final judgment on the impact of Pope’s Benedict’s visit to the United States will depend on the very freedom Americans value so much. Will it find the encouragement and support to say yes to the Pope’s proposal? Only Providence knows… The day after, the country’s attention turned again to the campaign for the Presidency. Politicians are waiting to see how they can attract the Catholic vote. Will the Pope’s words have any impact on how Catholics vote? Perhaps the observation of E.J. Dionne, a famous observer of the American religious scene, summarizes best what the challenge posed by the visit of the Pope is: “I suspect that American Catholics of all political hues will find themselves struggling with his message. For myself, I admire Benedict’s distinctly Catholic critique of radical individualism in both the moral and economic spheres, and his insistence that the Christian message cannot be divorced from the social and political realm. Yet I do not see the ‘spirit of this age’ as being quite so threatening to faith or human flourishing as Benedict seems to think... Perhaps it is the task of the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to bring discomfort to a people so thoroughly shaped by modernity, as we Americans are. If so, Benedict is succeeding.”