NEW YORK – Pope Benedict XVI concluded his visit to the United States with visits at New York City landmarks on the weekend — St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ground Zero and Yankee Stadium.
In 1965, Yankee Stadium was the site of the first papal Mass in the western hemisphere, and yesterday Benedict became the third Pope to visit — all of whom are the only non-baseball players to be honoured with plaques in the Yankees’ famous Monument Park.
After kneeling in an extended silent meditation at Ground Zero, Benedict prayed for all the victims of Sept. 11, for peace between nations and for conversion to the “way of love [for] those whose hearts and minds are filled with hatred.”
The set-piece events on the weekend focused on Benedict’s message to the Catholic faithful, encouraging vocations to the priesthood and religious life at an exuberant youth rally on Saturday night, and telling Catholics at Yankee Stadium to “enrich American society and culture with the beauty and truth of the Gospel.”
Stressing that the freedom Americans enjoy must be lived in accord with the truth, Benedict expanded his argument at the United Nations on Friday that human rights are best grounded in the truth of the human person created in God’s image.
Yet, on balance, Pope Benedict XVI surprised everyone by using his pastoral visit to the United States to mark the end of the beginning of the sexual-abuse crisis that has afflicted the American Church.
“Benedict has not written a ‘period’ to the sexual abuse crisis, but a ‘semi-colon,’ ” remarked papal biographer George Weigel.
It has been common this past week to compare the media mastery of Pope John Paul II with the more detached, professorial style of his successor. Yet Benedict showed on this trip — as he has demonstrated before in Germany and Turkey — that he can be most effective in bending the attention of the world press to his purposes.
Before the trip, the insistent question was whether or not Benedict would confront the sexual-abuse issue. By addressing it at length on the plane before he even landed, and then returning to it at almost every major address, reporters began asking by the end of the Washington portion of the trip why the Pope was talking about it so much. One New York Times reporter –a newspaper with little sympathy for the Catholic Church — mused that perhaps the Vatican strategy was to “talk it to death.” Indeed, by the time Benedict made a passing reference to it yesterday, it was no longer newsworthy.
The central gesture of the trip was the private meeting with victims in Washington on Thursday. Although kept off the official program to protect the victims from a media clamour beforehand, the Vatican ambassador to the United States had indicated several weeks ago that the meeting was likely. Benedict’s reconciling gesture, coupled with his numerous statements, put him ahead of the story and exceeded the expectations of public opinion.
According to sources close to Vatican planners, though the decision to give prominence to the sexual-abuse scandal was made weeks ago, the decision to put it front and centre while still on the plane was Benedict’s own.
“The media is not making this the story, the Pope is,” said John Allen, author of two biographies on Benedict.
Why did he do so, knowing other key issues he was going to address — immigration, Catholic education, pro-life — would consequently be overlooked? Four reasons suggest themselves.
First, Benedict himself has been particularly engaged with the issue of priestly misconduct, which he finds a tragic obstacle to the mission of the Church and the result of a weakening of priestly identity and discipline. In 2001, almost a year before the sexual-abuse scandal broke, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took charge of the sexual-abuse file in Rome, insisting that the procedures used for the most grave Church crimes be used.
Second, after the 2002 scandal broke, Cardinal Ratzinger’s office in Rome was responsible for implementing the new protocols and penalties implemented by the American bishops. Consequently, he is more familiar with the gruesome details of the case files than almost anyone else in Rome — and also aware of the enormous reforms introduced since 2002. It is likely that he wanted to give personal expression to his horror, and to the reform and reconciliation already underway in America.
Third, Benedict evidently judged that only by forthrightly engaging the scandal in his own person could he write that “semi-colon” and add those subordinate clauses that situate the scandal of priestly abuse in a wider context. He spoke this week of the need for the Church to teach more clearly Catholic doctrine, especially in regard to human sexuality; the obligation of bishops to conduct themselves more as pastors and evangelists than administrators or managers; and to encourage Catholics to challenge the culture of licentiousness in which sexual exploitation flourishes.
Fourth, Benedict is at heart a teacher, who knows how to take advantage of a teaching moment. If there exists a legitimate preoccupation with grave priestly scandals, he thinks it opportune to speak of that in the language of grace and sin, wickedness and healing, justice and reconciliation, purification and holiness — moving beyond the secular language of law, liability and safety. Indeed, a close examination of the several phrasings Benedict used on this trip manifest a determined attempt to speak of the scandal precisely in light of the Christian faith that no suffering, no matter how grave, is beyond the capacity of grace to heal.
Benedict marked his third anniversary as Pope on Saturday in New York, and departed for Rome yesterday evening.