From the BishopsWelcome, Benedict XVI

The time of the Holy Father’s pastoral visit to the United States draws near. Last week, an explanation was given for why the Holy Father chose the name he did. In his first general audience after his election in April 2005, he pointed to St. Benedict and how the Benedictine Order that he founded had an enormous influence on the spread of Christianity across Europe. St. Benedict is venerated in Germany and particularly in Bavaria, the pope’s birthplace. Benedict is, in the eyes of our Holy Father, a fundamental reference point for European unity and a powerful reminder of the indispensable Christian roots of its culture and civilization.

The choice of Benedict then reflects the Holy Father’s deep concern that a de-Christianized Europe is one that is in danger of losing true faith and reason. Closely allied to the de-Christianization of Europe are his concerns that secularism and nationalism are doing immense damage to the faith and to human dignity. It will be interesting to see if this concern is reflected in the talks he gives in Washington and New York. Hopefully, our nation will learn from the European experience that total secularization has serious downsides that we Americans would do well to avoid.

The homily that Pope Benedict XVI gave at his inaugural Mass was quite moving to me: “Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that he might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in his friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. We give ourselves to him; we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ — and you will find true life. Amen.”

Reinforcing openness to friendship with Christ clearly is found, in my judgment, in the pope’s book, Jesus of Nazareth, in which he writes: “This impression (that we have very little certain knowledge of Jesus) has by now penetrated deeply into the minds of the Christian people at large. This is a dramatic situation for faith, because its point of reference is being placed in doubt: intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air.”

He is a deep thinker, Benedict XVI. And, given his age (he will celebrate his 81st birthday here in the United States), his weekly activities as listed in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano would be exhausting for most people half his age. Quite different from John Paul II, he nonetheless draws huge crowds to his public audiences. His, of course, will be the first papal visit to the United States since Pope John Paul II in 1999. During his stay in Washington, he will visit President Bush at the White House, have a session with the bishops of the United States and celebrate Mass at the Washington Nationals’ new baseball stadium. He will then go to New York City where he will address the United Nations; visit “Ground Zero,” the site of the former World Trade Center; address the presidents of Catholic universities and colleges of the United States along with representatives of Catholic schools from each arch/diocese in the country on the topic of Catholic education; celebrate Mass for clergy and religious in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and conclude his visit with a solemn Mass in Yankee Stadium. Somewhere in there, time must be found for a few hours sleep.

Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) was the first modern pope to begin pastoral visits within Italy. His successor, Pope Paul VI, was the first pope to travel throughout the world, a practice continued on a far more extensive basis by Pope John Paul II. The pope makes pastoral visits to meet with people, to celebrate Mass with them, and to have the opportunity to directly teach his people.

In addition to meeting with us, the Holy Father wants to give us an opportunity to meet him. Most will only be able to do that through the medium of television, but he will be here. He will undoubtedly speak to us about some of his major concerns and give us his vision of the Church, a vision of hope, a hope that we desperately need to renew at these crucial times for our country and our culture. More important, perhaps, is the opportunity this papal visit will give Catholics to publicly celebrate their faith.

There are several ways in which we can prepare ourselves for this momentous visit. When an important guest is coming to visit, we make sure our house is in order. So that our hearts and minds are open and ready to receive the messages of our Holy Father, which no doubt will be challenging to some, we should make use of the sacrament of reconciliation. Sin ruptures the unity we are expected to have with the Church, the Body of Christ, as St. Paul describes it. Saying “we” are Catholic does not mean we are Catholic. Rather, we need to embrace the faith to which we are bonded by the sacraments of initiation, its teachings and discipline. When we do not, there is a need to be reconciled with the Church. That is done by a prayerful reception of the sacrament of reconciliation. This being the Lenten season, there are many opportunities to do that. Coming as it does, so soon after the Lenten season, hopefully this requirement has already been fulfilled. If for whatever reason it has not, I urge you to do so.

Since the unity of the Church is experienced primarily in the sacrament of the Eucharist, this visit of Pope Benedict XVI should reaffirm within every Catholic a determination to be faithful to the weekly celebration of the Holy Eucharist. To excuse oneself without serious cause ruptures a person’s unity with the Body of Christ, the Church.

Of course, we should pray for the pope, for a safe journey and stay in our country. We should pray, too, that the Holy Spirit will inspire him to speak in the name of Jesus to our hearts, hearts open to hear and accept his wisdom.

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