I’ve never had the honour of participating at a mass presided by Pope Benedict XVI. I did have the honour of participating at the Christmas Vigil at St. Peter’s in 1998, presided by Pope John Paul II and concelebrated by Cardinal Ratzinger. I sat three rows away from the sanctuary. I will never forget that.
As to Pope Benedict’s visit to the USA, I was unable to attend any of the events, but was glued to my TV the entire time. There were some things that left a lasting impression on me. The man himself left an impression on me. I have served the Church as a missionary, professor, formation director for religious life, vocation director and other capacities since 1969. During that time, I had always known Joseph Ratzinger to be a very stuffy and conservative theologian. That was the impression that the world got whenever his name appeared in the news. His interaction with the people in Washington, DC and NY shattered that image forever. The man exudes a certain degree of shyness and simplicity that is far from stuffy. His language exhibited great intelligence; but who said that intelligent people cannot be shy?
There were several moving moments too. I hope that Catholics in the United States will never forget them. When he visited the synagogue in NY he said that he was reminded that Jesus prayed in a temple such as this. Those words were deliberately spoken for Jews and Christians. They were meant to remind us of the fraternal bonds and common roots between the two faiths. Many Jewish people will think about Jesus when they enter that synagogue. Hopefully, many Catholics will also think about Jesus when they encounter a Jew. Such a simple gesture and thought is not a full act of communion, but we have to begin somewhere.
It was equally impressive to see the numbers of young religious men and women, as well as secular seminarians at the mass that he celebrated at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I realize that we always need more men and women religious, as well as secular priests. But I hope those images of so many young men and women in religious life and so many secular young men who will someday be secular priests will instil a sense of hope in Catholics. It was very inspiring to know that so many young people are still answering Christ’s call to celibacy, religious life or priesthood. There were also many new religious communities there. As older religious congregations die out, there are no voids. The Holy Spirit fills those gaps with new religious communities such as the Sisters of Life, the Franciscans of the Renewal, the Franciscans of the Eternal Word and many others.
I believe that the Holy Father wanted to spend time with men and women religious and secular seminarians. But he also wanted to make a visual statement to the Church in the United States. Christ has kept his promise, “I shall be with you until the end of time.” Our youth are willing to follow Christ, as religious, as priests or as consecrated lay people. Our youth are not lost to God. Despite the sin in our society, life prevails.
When he met the children with developmental disabilities at the seminary was another moving moment. I minister to families who have loved ones with disabilities. This is a population that gets little press within Catholic circles. Even here on CAF, several threads were started on this topic and few people expressed interest in them. People born with disabilities or who become disabled bring to the world and to the Church a different kind of perfect. The Holy Father brought that out into the open. They are our brothers and sisters and they are meant to be part of the daily life of the Church.
The crowning moment of the Holy Father’s visit was his secret meeting with the victims of sexual abuse by priests. This meeting was arranged through Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM. Cap, the Archbishop of Boston and a Capuchin Franciscan Friar. I thought that this was handled with great sensitivity and with a touch of class. The fact that the Holy Father met and prayed with 50 of these persons, under the noses of the press and no one knew about it until it was over, spoke to me about Christ’s love for those who suffer. He protects their dignity and heals their wounds without man being the wiser. The memory of this great act of justice, kindness and respect that the Holy Father and the Cardinal showed toward these brothers and sisters will linger in my own for many years to come.