Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Pope, people in books, and God.

Today is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Society of Jesus, a Jesuit feast commemorating the date in 1541 when St. Ignatius and the First Companions professed solemn vows at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls in Rome. It's also been two days since the end of Pope Benedict XVI's pastoral visit to the United States, a significant event that I'd like to write something about while I have the chance.

I never got a chance to see the last pope, but I can now say that I've seen the present one. On Saturday, I joined a number of other scholastics from Ciszek Hall, Jesuit novices from Syracuse, and roughly thirty thousand young people (including about five thousand seminarians and religious) at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York to greet the Holy Father. Though exhilarating, the event was also fairly exhausting - as any event that involves standing for hours in a dusty, unshaded field on a hot day probably would be. The demands of security as well as the practical logistics involved in gathering such a large crowd meant that everyone had to be in place hours before the Pope's actual arrival. During the wait, the assembled multitude listened to performances by various musicians (Kelly Clarkson was the only one that I'd previously heard of) and got to wait in long lines to get lunch (outside food being prohibited). At around five o' clock - four hours after the scholastics from Fordham had arrived - the Holy Father finally appeared on the field.

It's hard for me to think of appropriate words to describe my impressions of the Pope, though "awe-inspiring" would be a good start. What impressed me the most about Pope Benedict XVI in person were two qualities that I'd noticed before in reading things written by or about the present pontiff: his evident humility and great sincerity. There's something disarming - and, in a way, refreshing - about this soft-spoken pope who seems more at home in the study than in the pulpit, a theologian who is firm in his beliefs but who can nonetheless listen respectfully to the opinions of others, a teacher who still enjoys meeting with former students to discuss their latest discoveries, a classical pianist who loves cats (and who apparently used to adopt strays off the streets of Rome, until his staff begged him to stop).

In short, Pope Benedict XVI strikes me as very genuine - a man comfortable enough in his own skin to take his own approach to the ministry that God has called him to, rather than try to conform to others' expectations that he act just like this or that previous pontiff. That comfort - and the humility that comes with it - came across most vividly on Saturday when the Pope came to the apparent end of his prepared remarks and stood up to move on to the next portion of the program, only to be reminded by an assistant that he had an additional text to read. The Holy Father didn't try to conceal his mistake, but with a smile and a lifted finger, he said, "I forgot my Spanish." Judging from the appreciative chuckle that went through the crowd, I would say that Benedict's audience appreciated his honesty as well as his humor.

The highlight of the Holy Father's appearance on Saturday was his very fine address to an audience he consistently addresed as his "young friends." In my estimation, the Pope's remarks included a great deal of very practical and eminently down-to-earth advice and showed a keen awareness of the cultural and social challenges facing young Catholics in the United States. I was especially pleased to hear Pope Benedict emphasize the example of the saints - a topic we don't hear enough preaching on, in my opinion - and I liked the connections that he drew between personal prayer, participation in the Church's liturgy, and service to others. As an aspect of service, the Pope quite naturally spoke about vocations to the priesthood and to religious life, pointing to "the wondrous array of charisms proper to each religious institute" and telling the assembled crowd that "no perfect community exists, but it is fidelity to a founding charism, not to particular individuals, that the Lord calls you to discern." At several points, Benedict also directly addressed the priests, religious and seminarians in the audience; I was quite moved to hear him say that he prays daily for seminarians. To think that the Pope offers special prayers each day for a group that you belong to is, to say the least, very consoling.

To round out this post, I should note a couple of things. Firstly, for those who may be interested, here's an article on the Pope's private visit with Avery Cardinal Dulles, which also took place on Saturday. Secondly, for those who may be curious, yes, the Pope does have a sort of 'aura' about him, though it's something one feels rather than something one can actually see. It's hard to describe, but there is something special about seeing the pope in person and fairly close up - I felt it most vividly when he went by in the Popemobile, about fifteen feet away from where I was standing. This 'aura,' I suppose, is probably something that others have felt when catching a glimpse of Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and their predecessors. I'd be curious what any readers who have seen a pope close up may have to say on this subject. In closing, I'll say again how great it was to see Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday; in the coming days, I'll be praying that the Holy Father's message bears great fruit in the hearts of American Catholics. AMDG.


Post a Comment

<< Home