Journal of the People’s Pastor

“Writing The History I’ve Lived, Living The History I Write!”


Reflections on Pope Benedict XVI Visit to America

It was a beautiful day. And, it wasn’t June, when according to the poet, comes perfect days. It was Friday, April 18, 2008, which will forever be inscribed on the pages of history as the day Pope Benedict XVI came to New York. The sun was shining, but decided, perhaps in deference to the Pope, the faithful would say, to let a gentle coolness share the day.

His day was full – the UN where he spoke of peace, the East Central Synagogue in Manhattan where he spoke of reconciliation. In the evening, he visited St Joseph’s Church for an ecumenical service where he spoke of unity. Throughout the day, and in fact throughout his visit, starting in Washington, DC, the theme had been Hope. Bishop Martin, black Archbishop of Atlanta, GA, in a TV interview said, “Our world is in desperate need of hope. Of all the virtue our world needs today, Hope ranks at the top of the list.” But before the Pope ever departed the Vatican, he had set forth his reason for his visit to the two cities, Washington and New York. He said, “Together with your Bishops, I have chosen as the theme of my journey three simple but essential words: “Christ Our Hope.” Following in the footsteps of my venerable predecessors, Paul VI and John Paul II, I shall come to United States of America as Pope for the first time, to proclaim this great truth: Jesus Christ is hope for men and women of every language, race, culture and social condition. Yes, Christ is the face of God present among us. Through him, our lives reach fullness, and together, both as individuals and peoples, we can become a family united by fraternal love, according to the eternal plan of God the Father.”

We were told to arrive at 4pm for the 6pm event. My driver was, I came to believe, was practicing for the Indy 500. A line was already formed at the table where names of invited guest were recorded and identification had to be presented. (Even black clergy were on line and others were hastening to get on the line. It was a miracle for which the Pope will not get credit. But we, who know, know what happened). On the corner of 87th Street from York Avenue to 1st Avenue was completely cordoned off by police of every size, color and rank. The people solitary and clustered in groups were present wherever there was space. I was approached to sell my ticket and to name my price. It was tempting, but I reasoned I will always have money but I may never get a chance to be in a worship service with this Pope.
Without checking the book, the receptionist recognized me. Still I had to show my ID. “Government rules, you know,” said the officer at the table. As I walked along 87th Street to the church, escorted by a very friendly Euro-ethnic young lady, I was greeted with waves, nods and smiles. Inside the cafeteria/auditorium, where we would eat later, (for now, only small cookies and water) we passed through another checkpoint. For those who wanted to go straight to the church, a walkway connected the two buildings. You could see 87th Street and the horde of press people. Entering in, what by Catholic standard, the small church, eggshell-white walls, trimmed in gray, stain glasses, station of the Cross, chiseled in marble on the wall, about 100 clergy had already assembled.

At 5:15pm, there was heavy anticipation. You could cut it with the proverbial knife. At 5:17, a Bishop stepped to the podium to the left of us in front of the gold and brown trimmed altar and symbols. Briefly he welcomed us. All during the wait, the choir seated in the loft serenaded us with music. They were all white and middle to old age.

From 5:25 to 5:43, there was a presentation on the history of Ecumenism. Then came the introduction of the special guests by a different Bishop. At 5:45, the choir sang: “I Will Praise Thee Oh Lord.” The music stopped. There was a long pause. All eyes turned toward the back of the church – back to the huge opened doors. Although we were bound inside, by the yells of the crowd, we knew that something special was happening on the outside. Inside there was laughter, more like giggling comparable to grammar schoolboys.

At 5:50, he entered with his entourage. He arrived at the beige-felt chair, trimmed in gold. At 5:53, he greeted us in English. From 5:54 to 5:58, there was a welcome to the Pope and a gift from the church. A woman, yes a woman, read the scripture. Now it was time for the Pope to speak. Two Bishops and two Priests stepped forward handed the Pope his glasses, manuscript and arranged his mike. And the other orchestrated the preparation. The four attendants returned to their seat. Although, I was in the 4th row in the middle section of the church, I couldn’t hear what the Pope was saying. His voice was soft and low. He whispered with an accent. So, I gave up trying to listen. I decided to study the players and the drama and remember that these were mortals not gods.

My attention was riveted on the facial expression and body motion. The Pope’s face seldom changed. The two Bishops who set on either side starred straight ahead, occasionally batting their eyes – no feelings, no change of expression. I wondered how many hours they must have practiced this immobility, or, they had been doing it so long until it became natural. I wondered, what stress and strain these men were under. They know that billions of eyes are fastened upon them. The smallest movement, or absence of motion or a wave of the hand, countless people will try to interpret the motion and books will be written.

Observing this Pope, I was compelled to make a comparison with John Paul II. The cherub visage of John Paul was replaced with a stern almost frozen appearance of Benedict XVI. But there was kindness in both faces, but Pope John had it more. Their bodies differed. Pope John was bent. Pope Benedict was straight with just a slight bending of the shoulders. Pope John trembled. Pope Benedict was steady. His hands never quivered as he held the paper from which he read his speech. Pope John Paul was grandfatherly. Pope Benedict was professorial. When I studied Pope Benedict XVI, I thought of other German scholars. Kant, Hagel, Schopenhauer, and Fuerback and German theologians. Benedict XVI looks every bit the scholar that he is.

He never looked up from his speech – never deviated, never changed expression. At 6:16, he was finished. He had been speaking about 12 minutes. He received a 30 second ovation – more for him than what he said. The attendants returned, took away his glasses, manuscript and mike. There was an uncomfortable pause; eyes began to search to determine what to do next. Then the choir sang. After special guests’ introductions to the Pope accomplished by Cardinal Egan, the guests stepped forward and shook hands with the standing Pope.

6:26 it was over. With his entourage following, the Pope headed up the aisle and through the door. 6:32 he was gone to resume history in the cool of the evening as crowds screamed their adoration.
The rest of us, returned to the dining area, where a buffet of chicken, fish, pasta, tossed salad and bread was displayed. Of all the pomp and circumstance of the Pope’s visit to the USA, there were two acts that impressed me most.

His meetings with victims of sexual abuse by Priests. Here I believe he showed his compassion and his courage. Not once, but on several occasions he addressed the issue. Surely, there must have been those around him who were urging him not to get involved with the issue. Yet, repeatedly, he addressed the abuse.

His visit to St. Joseph’s Church. There was a question that baffled the clergy that was assembled and perhaps other people. Why had he chosen St. Joseph’s? It is probably one of the smaller churches. It is unknown. It is out of the way. When I inquired, I learned that it is the oldest German Parrish, and the only German speaking Parrish in the Archdiocese of New York. I was impressed because the Pope being German wanted to connect with his roots. Being of African origin, I know the continuing attempt by too many of my kindred to escape from their history. So, I admire people who honor their origin.
It was an interesting experience being in worship with Pope Benedict XVI, but it does not compare, not in the least, with my meeting with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican.