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April 19th, 2008
07:40 PM ET

The Pope's visit, and lasting impressions...

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.


Filed under: John L. Allen Jr. • Pope Benedict • TV
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. fcrooster

    Pope Benedict XVI takes high road in U.S. tour!

    Take note, President G.W. Bush, just as Pope Benedict XVI took the high road of hope and reconciliation in his United Nations address on Human Rights, highlighting religious freedom and liberty and the dignity and worth of every living individual—as he has throughout his U.S. tour—so too will Barack Obama, our next president. He will break your hold on our foreign policy, and the Era of the Long War will be over. Further, he will restore the Constitution—and our rights and civil liberties—and every American citizen, will be worthy of benefits of the American Dream. Benedict noted: Not just the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, acting out of their own self-interests, but all member nations of the General Assembly must act collectively to solve today’s world’s problems. Again, take note, Mr. President because you have acted out of your own self-interests in an imperial presidency. The People of these United States will elect to take their government back. We will act collectively to solve our problems. With our goodwill and blessing, and the longed-for 21st century leadership, President Barack Obama, on our behalf, will make the necessary, sincere apologies to mend our fences, turn the page on the atrocities of the Bush-Clinton Era and, with renewed hope, vigor, and reconciliation, solve our most-pressing problems.

    P.S. The above expressed views are those of a recovering Catholic. Traditional Roman Catholics may differ.

    April 21, 2008 at 10:42 pm |
  2. James

    To me the whole visit seemed over blown and ritualistic. This is what Christ said about the Pharisees Matthew 6:1-7: "6 “Take good care not to practice YOUR righteousness in front of men in order to be observed by them; otherwise YOU will have no reward with YOUR Father who is in the heavens. 2 Hence when you go making gifts of mercy, do not blow a trumpet ahead of you, just as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be glorified by men. Truly I say to YOU, They are having their reward in full. 3 But you, when making gifts of mercy, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, 4 that your gifts of mercy may be in secret; then your Father who is looking on in secret will repay you.
    5 “Also, when YOU pray, YOU must not be as the hypocrites; because they like to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the broad ways to be visible to men. Truly I say to YOU, They are having their reward in full. 6 You, however, when you pray, go into your private room and, after shutting your door, pray to your Father who is in secret; then your Father who looks on in secret will repay you. 7 But when praying, do not say the same things over and over again, just as the people of the nations do, for they imagine they will get a hearing for their use of many words. " If this does not depict the popes visit I dont now what does.

    April 21, 2008 at 6:29 pm |
  3. rankin

    Why is the world so fascinated with the pope? Who is he? What makes him so special? Where in the Holy Bible does it state any thing to do with the pope? He is a human being that a group of people are ordaining to be so prestigous and the world is following along! He has no holy power and he is no closer to Jesus Christ than anyone else on this planet! Get over it!

    April 21, 2008 at 5:55 pm |
  4. Jolene

    Well, I was glued to the tube all weekend watching the Pope and I'm glad he came to the U.S. I feel like I’ve learned a little bit more about the man. His message of hope and his genuine interest in speaking with the victims of sexual abuse and 911 was impressive and a sign that change may begin within the church. The reaction to him from the crowds and his reaction to us in turn was priceless, not to mention enjoyable to watch. I even sent him an e-mail thanking him for coming. In my mind, his trip here to the U.S. should be considered a success.

    Jolene, St. Joseph, MI

    April 21, 2008 at 4:40 pm |
  5. Brenda

    Reading over the comments on this blog, I'm amazed at the ignorance of so many people. So many people are blinded by their own agenda's of hate and lack of true scholarship, relying on conspiracies and lies told over and over again about the church. Nicole accurately stated that within the church there are flawed human beings, like the first apostles, to govern Christ's church. The church has been here for 2000 years and will continue to be here long after we are all gone. Not because of man, but because of God. I have been confused and disgruntled at the lack of action on the part of Bishops on many topics. They need to step out with courage, enflamed by apostolic zeal to speak out against all evils in our society and the church, regardless of popularity. Of course, this has to be done with love, compassion and understanding. Ladies and Gentlemen, faith is a gift, it is an action of grace in our lives that lead us to Truth and real freedom. You say, what is truth? If you are truly open to the truth and take all your selfish agenda's off the table and ask for the grace of faith, you will hear His voice. For Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.

    April 21, 2008 at 12:33 pm |
  6. paul v

    I'm glad the POPE came!!

    I'm also estatic as a practicing Catholic!

    I was also surpise that the POPE stated in his speech that "America needs HOPE"

    mmmmmmm sounds like a "small" endorsement for CHANGE

    April 21, 2008 at 10:50 am |
  7. Nicole

    It seems too many people refuse to look at history with real glasses on, and truly study a faith before they start speaking as an expert. All I read mostly is hate. Some people want to others to be mad and lonely as they are and will say anything to get that reaction.
    As far as all the social issues of birth control, gay marriages and blaming all problems on the Church is wrong,. Pope Paul IV's (1968) encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (Latin for Human Life – prevent new human beings from coming into existence) warns that abuse towards children and esp women will increase. He tells of all the horrors that will occur from this simply act of man-kind trying to control life and death. All this has happen and now people are blaming the Catholic Church for all the woes that the Church tried to prevent!
    No one wants to be told want to do with their lives and their bodies; esp in USA. But when all hell breaks loose please try not to blame anyone else but the one in the mirror. We need to take a look at ourselves and fixs the issues facing us. The Pope is assisting us and he is telling us what we need to hear not what we want to hear.
    Plus, when the sandal broke out it wasn't this Pope's office to address the sandal from the Vatican in 2002. He was over the doctrine and keeping its faith true- keeping it intact for our children and their children. The Church is both Divine and Human. We have made grave errors. No excuses made. But, the Divine part is always there to guide and lift it's children.
    I saw the love and the hope in the young people following the Pope, and listening to every word he spoke. Hope is alive!

    April 21, 2008 at 9:08 am |
  8. Kathy - Tennessee

    Most unfortunately, the Catholic Church is not the only religious group to contribute to and refrain from dealing with sexual abuse. There are plenty of Protestant examples. This wound will heal and I am glad he addressed it directly. Recent actions of the church has made it more difficult for anyone to hide such abuses.

    I think it was gratifying to see this country welcome the Pope in such a warm way; he is not an ordinary man, he is the chosen leader of the Catholic Church, elevated to that postion by many who have committed their lives to their religion. This is in contrast to some of the self-appointed evangelical leaders who have done such damage to this country. His message of peace and inclusion was such a blessing.

    April 20, 2008 at 10:53 pm |
  9. Mr. J

    Well where sould I begin. First at one time I had never missed going to church for eighteen years. After a life changing moment I have spent thirty years researching the Bible , Coran, and Torah. At one time popes have told people not to eat tomatoes and potatoes. They hung people as witches and wizards for causing the minny ice age. When you look at the customs, myths, and superstitions at the times these three books were written you soon realize God had nothing to do with any of them. What about the gosple of Mary and the other gosples shuned when the bible was put together. I now believe God lives in each of us. We all start out good but when we are led astray with any of these books we strat judging others depending on which book our mind was twisted by. If you read history written by the Greeks, Romans, Persians, each is slanted in their own favor. The same is true if you read about the American revolution weather you read views of historiens from America, Great Britten, or France.

    April 20, 2008 at 5:39 pm |
  10. Tammy

    Here's when this Pope makes changes that tell me he truly cares about the entire flock and that Catholic really does mean universal...

    Women are allowed equal access to all roles in the church (including priesthood), clergy are allowed to marry and have children, homosexuality is accepted and gay marriage is allowed, the Vatican becomes less of a political entity and more of a religious one, poverty is honestly addressed throughout the world, human rights are given more than lip service, pharmaceutical birth control is seen as a woman's health issue and not a damnation from above, and all are invited to receive Communion (not just the chosen few who call themselves Roman Catholic). Oh, and divorce is allowed, those divorced are allowed into the Church without annulments, and the Church realizes that some marriages should have never happened in the first place and those who divorce need healing, not banishment from their clergy. Oh yeah, and the hypocrisy that is Catholic "Education" is revamped to reflect true Church teaching and best educational practices or not done at all (and that they are willing to be subjected to the same standards for teachers, testing, and curriculum as public schools, especially if their kids take my tax dollars for books, food, and scholarships to attend state run universities). Finally, the Church needs to do a way better job of evaluating and training those who work in the Church before they are allowed to work with children and teens (and the safe environment classes really might make legal happy, but they don't address the real problems).

    I left the Roman Catholic Church about three years ago, and I am still detoxing from all the brainwashing and realizing I don't have to feel guilt because I believe what I wrote above. I was pretty excited that maybe this visit would bring about true change for the church. It seems to me it's just all pretty talk once again. When the Holy See starts walking Christ's walk (instead of their own), I'll believe this pope is the mover and shaker they make him out to be.

    April 20, 2008 at 1:10 pm |
  11. Mr. Calabash

    I'm glad the Pope is a nice fellow. I would be much happier if the Pope would address the issues of birth control, priestly celibacy, population growth, global warming, the conflict with radical Islam, or any other meaningful issue. It seems to me that this Pope, like the last one, intends to allow the Church to crumble into absolute meaninglessness. The Church has become irrelevant to the lives of believers and non-believers.

    April 20, 2008 at 9:24 am |
  12. j mccollom

    Patrick O'Donnell is a priest who although he has admitted to molesting to many boys to remember is free . I do not see how the Pope has addressed this issue . This priest is free to steal a soul again at any time. Patrick O'Donnell has actually had suicide notes left on his victims and yet the Pope has yet to address this. Patrick O'Donnell has never even actually been defrocked at the Vatican . The Catholic Church has let this man hurt and remain hurting . This man currently lives next to a park and does not have to register as a sex offender leaving his true predator risk to the pubic unknown. The Vatican and the Pope are not doing enough . Patrick O'Donnell is the proof of this.

    April 19, 2008 at 11:36 pm |
  13. Pam

    I don't understand what all the hooplah is surrounding the pope. He's not God. He is an ordinary man like any other man.
    The huge following this one man has reminds me of the following the "prophet" of the FLDS has.

    April 19, 2008 at 11:27 pm |
  14. Pete Mansford

    Well... with the lack of action on the Pope's part about doing something about the sexual abuse crisis, I guess the Catholic member should be looking for another church to worship. Because just like Barack Obama, there are problems more serious in the Catholic Church than the words spoken in Barack Obama church. So those members that said "We don't understand why did Obama stay at his church?" Well with that said, I don't understand why Catholics will stay with a church that has not done nothing of substance on this subject.

    April 19, 2008 at 11:00 pm |
  15. tashi khangsar

    Pope's highly anticipated visit to this continent is blessing. Though I am not christian, I have great regard to Pope. He need to be more direct with communist China regarding suppression of religious rights and unilateral appointment of Bishops or other religious figures by communist leaders! Appeasement will never work with communists.

    April 19, 2008 at 10:54 pm |