[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/04/21/art.pope.yankeestadium2.jpg%5D
John L. Allen Jr.
CNN Sr. Vatican Analyst
Vatican Correspondent, National Catholic Reporter
Prior to the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI in the United States last Tuesday, he remained an enigma for most Americans. A poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that 80 percent of Americans, including two-thirds of the country’s 70 million Catholics, knew “nothing or next to nothing” about the pope.
If this six-day swing shaped up as Benedict’s opportunity to introduce himself to the American public, what is it people seem to have learned?
For Catholic insiders, the list of things gleaned is probably almost infinite. Priests who attended the pope’s Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York this morning, for example, probably paid close attention to the details of how Benedict celebrated the Mass, as well as the rhetorical and spiritual approach he took in his homily (a reflection on the scripture readings), as models for how they themselves will do those things in the future. Catholic educators undoubtedly paid close attention to the vision for Catholic schools the pope laid out in his address at the Catholic University of America on Thursday.
Most of that, however, probably did not leave a deep impression on the average Catholic, to say nothing of the typical non-Catholic American. At the level of “outsider” perceptions, early indications are that two points are what will likely stay with people well after the pope returns to Rome.
First, one can probably write an obituary for Benedict XVI’s image as a stern, draconian “enforcer.” (In the interests of full disclosure, I should confess that I’m the one who originally stuck that particular label on the future pope in the subtitle of my 1999 biography, Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith. In self-defense, however, I was referring not to the man but to his job as the Vatican’s doctrinal czar.)
Over these six days, people who have even casually glanced at a TV screen at some point during the pope’s visit have probably seen a warm, smiling figure obviously delighted with the reception he’s receiving. They’ve also seen a pope determined to reach out, whether it’s an unprecedented meeting with victims of sexual abuse or his stirring visit to the Park East Synagogue in New York on the eve of the Jewish feast of Passover. During his Mass at St. Patrick’s, the key words in his homily were “joy” and “hope,” repeated often enough to seem virtually a mantra.
It’s not that the pope shrunk from laying down challenges. In his address to other Christian leaders at St. Joseph’s Church in Manhattan, he insisted on maintaining “purity of doctrine.” He even dipped ever so gently into American politics, criticizing immigration policies that divide families in comments aboard the papal plane. He told those Catholic educators that church-run schools must accept the full range of official Catholic teaching.
Nevertheless, what Americans saw over these days was definitely not a task-master or a scold. They saw a man who looks genuinely kind, and whose very lack of desire to be a celebrity is part of his appeal.
Second, many observers have been struck by the candor of Benedict XVI in his repeated public acknowledgments of the depth and gravity of the sexual abuse crisis in the American Catholic Church. The fact that his blunt confession of “deep shame” happened to coincide with reports of the another religious group largely refusing to address charges of underage marriage and sexual abuse of minors only throws the pope’s plain speech into sharper relief.
To be sure, one can legitimately ask where this candor was five years ago, when the crisis erupted in Boston. One can also ask if Benedict’s words and deeds will be matched by new action.
Yet none of that detracts from the revolution Benedict has engineered during his American trip. The old stereotype of the Church in times of crisis was to deny, to minimize the problem, and to react defensively. To some extent, of course, this was precisely a stereotype, and many Church officials don’t fit that bill. Nonetheless, it was true often enough to keep the image alive.
In just six days, Benedict has made that way of reacting to problems far more difficult to justify. When a new crisis erupts in the future – and one inevitably will – if someone in Catholic officialdom refuses to address it honestly, I suspect a vast chorus will arise: “Why can’t you be more like the pope?” In the Catholic world, that’s a pretty difficult kind of pressure to resist.
Inevitably, once the pope leaves American airspace many specific images from this trip will fade. The polygamist drama in Texas will continue to unfold, the Pennsylvania primary will create a stir, and other storylines will emerge, all of which will erase much of the short-term American memory about the pope.
It may well be that only these two impressions – kindness and candor – actually endure in the American public consciousness. If that’s the take-away from the pope’s trip, one would have to imagine that the Vatican will be happy to call it a day.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
Questions or comments? Send an email
Want to know more? Go behind the scenes with