Professor to professors

April 18, 2008

The pace of the Pope’s schedule picked up yesterday, and I can’t hope to keep up with it all, but here are a few comments on what I saw and heard.

The day began with a Papal Mass at the awkwardly-named Nationals Park, a baseball stadium in Washington. This was the largest public event of the visit so far, with about 46 000 attending. His homily was substantive, and bears attention. It was largely a commendation of the vitality of the Catholic Church in the United States, and an encouragement to further conversion and faithfulness. American society is known for its confidence in the future and its love of freedom, and Benedict related those national characteristics to Christian hope and freedom. He reminded them that the Church in America is but a part — and a small part — of a Church that extends far beyond the US in both space and time. Perhaps he wanted to give them some perspective on the issues (you know, the pelvic ones) that animate controversy in the US. He himself comes, he said, as the Successor of Peter, a source of unity for the Church. While largely positive in his portrait of American Catholicism, he did note the problems of poor catechesis, resulting in many Catholics who do not understand the faith and fall away under the influence of secular culture, and he spoke once again of the sexual abuse scandals. Finally, he enjoined his listeners to renew the practice of sacramental confession in order “to inspire conversion, to heal every wound, to overcome every division, and to inspire new life and freedom!” A coda in Spanish closed the address.

Around the homily was the Mass itself, much juiced up with choirs and singers and so on. Probably the less said about this the better. The most charitable assumption is that those who planned the service had never read any of Benedict’s many writings on liturgy. It was self-consciously politically correct, with even Japanese Americans — that much neglected demographic block — given their moment in the diversity sun.

In the afternoon, Benedict delivered a much anticipated address to academics and educators at the Catholic University of America. This was, again, a substantive address, containing much to ponder. He reaffirmed the centrality of education to the life of Catholic culture and to the Church. His vision for Catholic education he condensed into a simple phrase: intellectual charity. It is leading students to truth out of love. He cautioned, as he has before, against too narrow an understanding of truth. “Truth is more than knowledge.” A Catholic education is not only informative; it is performative; it addresses the whole person and changes him; it is life-giving. Catholics cannot ultimately separate truth from goodness and beauty, and a true education touches not only intellectual life, but spiritual and moral life as well, in an integrated whole. Catholics ought to seek to integrate their studies with religious practice, for the two are ultimately in harmony: “Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom.” The indispensable foundation for any education is a devotion to truth, and teachers must lead by example:

To all of you I say: bear witness to hope. Nourish your witness with prayer. Account for the hope that characterizes your lives (cf. 1 Pet 3:15) by living the truth which you propose to your students. Help them to know and love the One you have encountered, whose truth and goodness you have experienced with joy. With Saint Augustine, let us say: “we who speak and you who listen acknowledge ourselves as fellow disciples of a single teacher”.

There had been some speculation that he would take to task those who have steadfastly resisted implementing the changes to Catholic higher education requested by John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae, but he did not. His words were encouraging and positive, in harmony with the general tone of his visit thus far. We shall see whether that continues for the remainder of the visit.

At the end of the day he travelled to the John Paul II Cultural Center for a meeting with leaders of other religions, and a special meeting with Jewish leaders to mark the beginning of Passover. Benedict has in the past expressed reservations over John Paul II’s eagerness to dialogue with other religions, and his remarks were correspondingly moderate. He spoke of the need for religious freedom, and cautioned against a religious pluralism that forsakes a primary concern for truth:

Dear friends, in our attempt to discover points of commonality, perhaps we have shied away from the responsibility to discuss our differences with calmness and clarity. While always uniting our hearts and minds in the call for peace, we must also listen attentively to the voice of truth. In this way, our dialogue will not stop at identifying a common set of values, but go on to probe their ultimate foundation.

In his meeting with Jewish leaders he expressed great appreciation and affection, highlighting the common heritage of Christians and Jews.

Sometime during the day he met privately with several victims of sexual abuse by priests. I am glad that this was done off-screen, to avoid the appearance of pandering to the cameras. More details here.

Today he moves to New York City, where he will address the United Nations and visit a synagogue.

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