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The Pope’s Visit to the United States

April 10, 2008


The Pope’s Visit to the United States


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Next week Pope Benedict XVI will make his first official visit to the United States. He will gather with bishops and other Catholics in Washington, where he will also meet with President Bush. Then he will travel to New York City, where he will address the United Nations and a number of other groups. He will celebrate the Eucharist at the new stadium of the Washington Nationals as well as in storied Yankee Stadium. It will be a very full and swift few days for Benedict and for all who follow his visit.

Benedict is distinctive as a pope who (as Joseph Ratzinger) was a prominent theologian before his election as chief shepherd of the Church. His theology is rich and complex, and it exhibits development over the decades since the Second Vatican Council. I would simply like to highlight three principal ideas from his theology that continue to inform his teaching as pope. I believe that these ideas have relevance for our own lives as Catholic Christians.

First, as theologian and pope Benedict has emphasized the call to conversion. His great hero and model is Augustine of Hippo. Recently, his Wednesday catecheses have focused on important thinkers from the early Church. It is clear that for him Augustine was the most significant Christian theologian and pastor of this period. In one of those recent catecheses, Benedict spoke about the significant role that Augustine has played in his life as a theologian, priest and pastor. Augustine is famous for his own conversion to Christianity, recounted in such a compelling way in his Confessions. Benedict says that all the stages of Augustine’s life “make up a single long conversion.” In other words, Augustine’s conversion was not finished when he was baptized in 387. His life as Christian, pastor and theologian was a journey of ongoing conversion. In reflecting on what Augustine has to say to us today, Benedict says, “We need a permanent conversion. Up to the end we need to demonstrate a humility that acknowledges that we are sinners on a journey, until the Lord gives us his hand and leads us to eternal life. It is with this attitude of humility that Augustine lived out his final days until his death.” For Benedict, the Christian life is one in which we are continually invited to direct our lives more closely to the Lord Jesus and in him to discover authentic freedom and life.

Second, Benedict reminds us that God is our great hope. As a theologian, he studied and wrote at length on the topic of Christian eschatology, i.e., the Christian understanding of final fulfillment. His past theological study is evident in his most recent encyclical, Spe Salvi (“Saved in Hope”). Benedict worries about the effect that the growing secularization of our world has on believers and all people. He tries to respond to a world in which many people seem to live their lives without much reference to God. In his encyclical, he speaks of “the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day” (n. 31). All of us have “little hopes” related to our work and careers, our relationships with our loved ones, and significant projects that we undertake. But Benedict remarks that these hopes “are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else.” He adds, “This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow on us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain.” Benedict thinks that we should work hard to achieve our goals in life and that Christians should be committed to make this world a better place – a world characterized more fully by peace and justice. At the same time, he reminds us that we can engage in such commitments only by the grace of God and that, ultimately, we depend on God to bring human history and creation to their fulfillment. Without the hope that arises from a vibrant relationship with a gracious and loving God, we are deprived of something that is essential for human life.

Third, Benedict is convinced that Catholics need to have a strong sense of identity. He believes that Catholics need to be engaged in the world, but he thinks that we need to know who we are and what we believe in order to engage the world in a credible and effective way. Some of his more challenging and controversial statements as theologian and Cardinal seem to have originated from his concern that Catholic teaching has become “fuzzy” in recent years and that many believers do not have a sufficient knowledge of their faith. He has lamented the shallow understanding of the Scriptures and Christian tradition that marks the lives of many Catholics. Thus, he thinks that we need to be more solidly grounded in our tradition in order to preserve our identity in a secular world and to attract others to Christ and to the Church.

It is reported that the pope will address the United Nations next week on the subject of human rights. Let us pray that he will speak a word that will inspire world leaders and all people to respect the dignity of every person and to strive for peace. Every day we read in our newspapers about ongoing conflict between nations and ethnic groups and about the brutal repression of minority groups in many places around the globe. Benedict’s message will be a very important one for our world to hear. His teaching about conversion, hope and Catholic identity is also a timely message for us as Catholics to reflect upon and internalize.

Fr. Robin Ryan, cp

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