National holidays such as today (Veterans Day) give us an opportunity to reflect upon who we are as Americans and the virtue of patriotism. In the last few weeks and months, the things that divide us have taken center stage, and now even after the presidential election, it continues. As I was thinking about this this morning while saying my prayers, I thought about Pope Benedict XVI’s Papal visit to the United States during April of 2008.
The pilgrimage was focused on the Successor of Peter bringing a message of hope, healing and reconciliation to a country much in need of these three things. I think it is worth going back to what our Holy Father said to us as American Catholics during those very special days.
In preparation for this visit, the pope explained the central them of his trip: “I have chosen as the theme of my journey three simple but essential words: “Christ our Hope!” I come to United States of America as Pope for the first time, to proclaim this great truth: Jesus Christ is hope for men and women of every language, race, culture and social condition. Yes, Christ is the face of God present among us. Through him, our lives reach fullness, and together, both as individuals and peoples, we can become a family united by fraternal love, according to the eternal plan of God the Father.
Upon his arrival in Washington D.C., Pope Benedict was greeted by President Bush who warmly welcomed him at the White House. In his opening remarks, the Holy Father said, “I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society. America’s Catholics have made, and continue to make, an excellent contribution to the life of their country. As I begin my visit, I trust that my presence will be a source of renewal and hope for the Church in the United States, and strengthen the resolve of Catholics to contribute ever more responsibly to the life of this nation, of which they are proud to be citizens.”
Over the following days in both our nation’s capitol and in New York, our Holy Father did not shy away from addressing the challenges and problems that the Catholic Church in America continues to face. He spoke about a growing materialism, the deteriorating state of marriage and the family, the lack of priestly vocations, and declining mass attendance. Our Holy Father reminded our bishops of their role in engaging in dialogue in the public square, but also reminded each of us of the great responsibility that comes along with the freedom and rights that we enjoy as Americans.
In the open air Mass at the Washington National’s Stadium Pope Benedict returned to the idea of hope. He recalled the rich tradition of hope that America was built upon explaining that, “Americans have always been a people of hope: your ancestors came to this country with the expectation of finding new freedom and opportunity, while the vastness of the unexplored wilderness inspired in them the hope of being able to start completely anew, building a new nation on new foundations.”
But he further explained the Christian virtue of hope – “The hope poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, the hope which supernaturally purifies and corrects our aspirations by focusing them on the Lord and his saving plan – that hope has also marked, and continues to mark, the life of the Catholic community in this country.
In New York, Benedict XVI became the first pope to enter into and pray inside a Jewish synagogue in our country. He also engaged in several interreligious and ecumenical discussions striving to deepen and strengthen relations between people of faith. “Only by “holding fast” to sound teaching (2 Thess 2:15) will we be able to respond to the challenges that confront us in an evolving world. Only in this way will we give unambiguous testimony to the truth of the Gospel and its moral teaching. This is the message which the world is waiting to hear from us. Like the early Christians, we have a responsibility to give transparent witness to the “reasons for our hope.”
On the final day of his trip, before the open air Mass at Yankee Stadium (though I am sure he isn’t a Yankee’s fan), Benedict made a solemn and prayerful visit to ground zero. In the place marked by intolerable violence and pain, our Holy Father knelt in prayer remembering those who lost their lives to terrorism. Once again, Benedict pointed to Christ as the source of our hope!
May Benedict’s historic visit to America, his clear articulation of the Gospel, his message of hope and his call for a greater fidelity to the Gospel remain ever fresh in our minds. May it also be a reminder to all of us to work toward reconciliation and peace, for we are one nation under God.