Several friends and co-workers have asked me what it was like to attend the Papal Mass at Nationals Park in DC. It certainly didn’t seem reflected in many news media accounts. The standard AP template was largely secular and political. Reporter Victor Simpson summarized that Pope Benedict focused on "decrying that the nation's promise has been left unfulfilled for some." As I listened to the homily, I thought in that line, the Holy Father expressed that America did not begin in perfection, but there was hope for the oppressed in this country, whose freedoms were later guaranteed, that America has tried to improve, to live up to a promise, not unlike the Christian life.
A cynic might suggest that the Pope brought up slavery and the Native Americans to throw off the press from thinking he was a right-wing Reaganite. It certainly seemed greeted by reporters and pundits as a sign of his intention to make all American believers a little uncomfortable about not living up to the Gospels. (I heard this line from E. J. Dionne on NPR yesterday.) A cynic might also find political calculation in the many languages and musical styles used in the liturgy, that it was almost hard to find a white, English-speaking American reader or singer on stage, other than the Archbishop of Washington. (I was a little puzzled that one of the prayers was read in Igbo – are there a lot of American Igbo-speakers?) But I found it a wonderful reflection of a universal church, a global church, and I saw it reflected not just on stage, but on the incredible diversity in race and age all around me in the stands.
I may have just been recalling Peggy Noonan in her book on Pope John Paul being thrilled by the great diversity waiting to see the Pope in Rome, thronged in a wide array of native dress and music.
For the excited Catholics in the stands, they did not hear a political sermon about slavery or dwell on the apologies for the sexual abuse scandal. They heard a sermon thanking the faithful for their efforts to renew the face of the Church from the secularizing excesses of the post-Vatican II period, a sermon thanking people for their fervent prayer and efforts to catechize the young into the traditions of the Faith. As someone who teaches eighth graders and trains them for confirmation, I was especially gratified by this, and by his talk of the "profound harmony of faith and reason," something most in the press doesn’t believe in. For me, these are the real "meat" paragraphs of the D.C. stadium sermon, a call for missionary zeal and evangelization:
In every time and place, the Church is called to grow in unity through constant conversion to Christ, whose saving work is proclaimed by the Successors of the Apostles and celebrated in the sacraments. This unity, in turn, gives rise to an unceasing missionary outreach, as the Spirit spurs believers to proclaim "the great works of God" and to invite all people to enter the community of those saved by the blood of Christ and granted new life in his Spirit.
I pray, then, that this significant anniversary in the life of the Church in the United States, and the presence of the Successor of Peter in your midst, will be an occasion for all Catholics to reaffirm their unity in the apostolic faith, to offer their contemporaries a convincing account of the hope which inspires them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15), and to be renewed in missionary zeal for the extension of God's Kingdom.
The world needs this witness! Who can deny that the present moment is a crossroads, not only for the Church in America but also for society as a whole? It is a time of great promise, as we see the human family in many ways drawing closer together and becoming ever more interdependent. Yet at the same time we see clear signs of a disturbing breakdown in the very foundations of society: signs of alienation, anger and polarization on the part of many of our contemporaries; increased violence; a weakening of the moral sense; a coarsening of social relations; and a growing forgetfulness of God. The Church, too, sees signs of immense promise in her many strong parishes and vital movements, in the enthusiasm for the faith shown by so many young people, in the number of those who each year embrace the Catholic faith, and in a greater interest in prayer and catechesis. At the same time she senses, often painfully, the presence of division and polarization in her midst, as well as the troubling realization that many of the baptized, rather than acting as a spiritual leaven in the world, are inclined to embrace attitudes contrary to the truth of the Gospel.
"Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth!" (cf. Ps 104:30). The words of today's Responsorial Psalm are a prayer which rises up from the heart of the Church in every time and place. They remind us that the Holy Spirit has been poured out as the first fruits of a new creation, "new heavens and a new earth" (cf. 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1), in which God's peace will reign and the human family will be reconciled in justice and love. We have heard Saint Paul tell us that all creation is even now "groaning" in expectation of that true freedom which is God's gift to his children (Rom 8:21-22), a freedom which enables us to live in conformity to his will. Today let us pray fervently that the Church in America will be renewed in that same Spirit, and sustained in her mission of proclaiming the Gospel to a world that longs for genuine freedom (cf. Jn 8:32), authentic happiness, and the fulfillment of its deepest aspirations!
Here I wish to offer a special word of gratitude and encouragement to all those who have taken up the challenge of the Second Vatican Council, so often reiterated by Pope John Paul II, and committed their lives to the new evangelization. I thank my brother Bishops, priests and deacons, men and women religious, parents, teachers and catechists. The fidelity and courage with which the Church in this country will respond to the challenges raised by an increasingly secular and materialistic culture will depend in large part upon your own fidelity in handing on the treasure of our Catholic faith. Young people need to be helped to discern the path that leads to true freedom: the path of a sincere and generous imitation of Christ, the path of commitment to justice and peace. Much progress has been made in developing solid programs of catechesis, yet so much more remains to be done in forming the hearts and minds of the young in knowledge and love of the Lord. The challenges confronting us require a comprehensive and sound instruction in the truths of the faith. But they also call for cultivating a mindset, an intellectual "culture", which is genuinely Catholic, confident in the profound harmony of faith and reason, and prepared to bring the richness of faith's vision to bear on the urgent issues which affect the future of American society.
Actually, if reporters were Pope-bashers with all the bile of Christopher Hitchens -- who alleged incredibly this week that the Pope was a dim bulb, and that Heaven was like North Korea -- they might see that last sentence as a horrific call for religious faith to be smeared all over our political landscape. As religious people, we honor the establishment clause of the Constitution, that no official church be established by the state. But we do not recognize a separation of church and state in our own hearts and minds, and must feel compelled to be that "spiritual leaven in the world," even in the very worldly arena of politics.
I offer a major hat tip to MRC's Matthew Balan, who found me a ticket, even though I was slow to accept it in all the hustle and bustle of working life. It was a joy to be present and inspiring to attend a mass in which your humble, wonderful parish priest is actually the Pope. He is not a charismatic television figure like John Paul the Great. But to read the works of Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope Benedict is to recognize that his thought carries a charisma all its own.