Friday, April 18, 2008

Pope Benedict - no Dr Strangelove

The Pope`s visit to the United States would appear to have already been deemed a success.

The reaction to the Pope and his acts across The Herring Pond appears to have allowed people to have developed a renewed appreciation for Pope Benedict and his message.

Two articles in The Times- one a lead article on the Pope`s visit- appear to recognise this.

The first is a lead article in today`s Times which hopefully will allow the past image of the Panzer Cardinal to be finally laid to rest.

In Pope Benedict - no Dr Strangelove, the lead writer concentrates on Benedict`s message of "divine love" which "is surprisingly eloquent and confounds the early stereotypes".

"Anybody who has ever had to stand at a podium after a gifted speaker knows how it might have been for Pope Benedict XVI this week as he has made the first papal visit to the United States since John Paul II.

His predecessor was the ultimate media-savvy leader. When he came to the ultimate media-fixated nation, it was a match made in Heaven. Millions of the faithful and the merely curious flocked to parks and stadiums. People at times had to be physically restrained from throwing themselves at him. Even on his last trip here in 1999, visibly deteriorating, his mere presence was enough to move the least sentimental of grizzled Midwesterners.

The man who became Benedict was never going to match that. It would be rather like asking an ageing professor of English to take over from Laurence Olivier as Hamlet. He knows all the lines but he’s not even going to try to pull off the delivery.

Of course, when he was elected three years ago, the new Pope’s personal history created its own, somewhat lowered set of expectations. His membership of the Hitler Youth (actually mandatory for all young Germans, but why spoil a good story?); his reputation as the fierce intendant of Catholic orthodoxy; the fact that he spoke English in a vaguely “Ve haf veys of making you pray!” kind of accent. It was all too delicious for the headline writers. He was instantly dubbed Panzer Cardinal and The Enforcer.

Before the incense had drifted away from his installation Mass, the world had determined that this 265th pontiff was a rather disappointing, even frightening, sort of substitute for the last one, a kind of cross between Torquemada and Dr Strangelove.

Three years have passed since the fuzzy grey smoke from the Sistine Chapel announced his elevation and it is clearer than ever on this, his most visible excursion into the limelight since then, that this is as far from the reality as it is possible to be.

The visuals of a papal trip are much the same. There are vast Masses in baseball stadiums, Popemobile-led motorcades along city streets. And though he may not be a natural, this Pope has a sure grasp of the power of the image. He speaks to the United Nations today. He extended Passover greetings to the Jewish people yesterday and met leaders of other religions. On Sunday, his last day in the US, he pays a symbolic visit to the sacred American territory of Ground Zero.

But what is most striking, as hundreds of thousands observe this Pope in person for the first time, is not the visual symbolism, the crowds or the made-for-TV events, but the imposing beauty and power of his words.

It’s already a cliché in Rome that the crowds came to see John Paul but they come to hear Benedict.

Among those familiar with his career, his reputation was always that of a fierce intellectual — the theologian and author of dozens of dense tracts on Christianity. But what was missing was an understanding of Benedict’s remarkable capacity to use words to speak to the emotional part of the human brain.

Of course, the Pope will already have known that the US, unlike the Europe he hopes still to convert, is a religious place. True, as in Europe, there are a growing number of so-called cafeteria Christians, those who like to choose from a menu of moral and doctrinal options, who believe religion should be essentially a kind of divine validation of their own lifestyle rather than a call to sacrifice and commitment. But America is still fundamentally receptive to the religious principle, the idea of a single truth rather than a moral chaos of equally valid beliefs.

It would be a shame, however, if his words to Americans were not heard by people — Christians and non-Christians everywhere.

He has already startled many with the intensity of his denunciations of the actions of priests who sexually abused minors — the scandal that has turned many away from the Church in America and elsewhere — as well as those in the church hierarchy who enabled them. The Church has seemed reluctant in the past to make a complete penance for this sin but Benedict’s words this week will have done much to heal the wounds and restore trust.

Less newsworthy but perhaps more powerful for most listeners has been Benedict’s eloquence on the spiritual challenges of the modern world. At the White House, with President Bush at his side, he reminded Americans about the responsibilities as well as the great opportunities of political and economic freedom. “Freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good.”

But the Pope’s most compelling words are a constant reminder of how absurd his stereotype has been. He speaks repeatedly of the simple beauty of human love.

Shortly before he became Pope, Benedict told a congregation: “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story, an event.”

This idea of faith as a love story — God’s love for his people, and our love for Christ, the human face of God — is what Benedict seems to want us to understand as the defining theme of his papacy.

His first encyclical was not on birth control or gay marriage, but on what many considered the somewhat surprising subject of the simple divinity of human love, including the sanctity of erotic love. This emphasis on the centrality of love to the human condition is so at odds with the caricature of the doctrinal vigilante, endlessly lecturing on the perils of sexual intemperance, that it requires us to think hard about the very nature of religion’s role in modern life. It is a useful counterweight to the popular secular view that religion is the root of all human discord.

Three years ago, as John Paul II was laid to rest under St Peter’s, his extraordinary and epoch-changing ministry at an end, a reporter turned to one of his colleagues and said, with evident feeling: “There goes one heck of a story.”

But the story, as it happens, lives on, Benedict has opened a new chapter and if people would only listen they might find it has a surprising ending."

In Penitent Pope meets victims of sexual abuse by priests the writer concentrates on one of the most important themes of the visit: atonement for the priestly abuse of minors over the past 30 years and the Church’s slow response to it.

"Pope Benedict XVI met victims of sexual abuse by American clergy yesterday in the most dramatic signal yet of his efforts to atone for the scandal that has inflicted heavy damage on the Catholic Church in the United States.

The meeting took place in the chapel of the Vatican mission in Washington and came as he continued to place the issue of priestly abuse of minors over the past 30 years and the Church’s slow response to it at the forefront of his first visit to the US.

A Vatican spokesman said that the pontiff spent time with a group of victims. “They prayed with the Holy Father, who afterward listened to their personal accounts and offered them words of encouragement and hope,” he said.

“His Holiness assured them of his prayers for their intentions, for their families and for all victims of sexual abuse.”

Chief Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said there was a lot of emotion in the room and some victims cried. Each one then spoke personally with the Pope.

Accompanying the Pope in the meeting was Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston. The Boston Archdiocese was the scene of some of the worst cases of abuse. Cardinal Bernard Law, Cardinal O’Malley’s predecessor, was forced to resign in 2002 after strong criticism that he had allowed priests who had been known sexual abusers to remain in pastoral duties in the diocese.

Earlier the Pope used the occasion of a vast outdoor Mass in Washington’s new baseball stadium to express once again his shame at the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the US. Celebrating Mass with 215 bishops for a congregation of more than 46,000 at Nationals Park, in view of the Capitol building, the Pope delivered a homily that dwelt at length on the sexual abuse scandal.

“No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse,” the Pope said. “Nor can I adequately describe the damage that has occurred within the community of the Church.”

It was the third time in as many days on his first visit to the US that the Pope had condemned the actions of priests who abused youngsters over a period of decades, and it was the first time that he has expressed regret to a congregation of lay Catholics.

The scandal, which became public in 2002, has damaged the reputation of the Church and cost it more than $1 billion (£500 million) in legal settlements with victims of abuse.

Much of the leadership of the Church either ignored or failed to deal adequately with allegations of abuse over a period of years. A number of priests who were accused of abuse were removed from one parish or school only to be placed in another where they repeated their crimes. Several are now serving prison sentences.

The Pope asked the congregation to help victims of abuse and to support the many innocent priests whose reputations and trust had been damaged by the scandal.

“Today I encourage each of you to do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation, and to assist those who have been hurt. Also, I ask you to love your priests, and to affirm them in the excellent work that they do,” he said.

The repeated emphasis on the abuse scandal has surprised some Catholic observers, who expected the Pope to acknowledge the problems but not necessarily to demonstrate such penitence on behalf of the whole Church.

Benedict XVI’s contrition has been matched by a strong insistence from the Vatican that the lingering problem of sexual abuse should be eradicated. When he flew to the US on Tuesday, the Pope said that the Church would never tolerate paedophiles in the priesthood.

The theme of the visit is “Christ Our Hope” and the homily by the Pope yesterday also emphasised that message. He praised America as “a people of hope” but noted that there had been times in its history when not all of its inhabitants — especially Native Americans and slaves — had shared in the possibilities of hope.

“By your prayers, by the witness of your faith, by the fruitfulness of your charity, may you point the way towards that vast horizon of hope which God is even now opening up to his Church, and indeed to all humanity: the vision of a world reconciled and renewed in Christ Jesus, our Saviour,” he concluded.

The Mass, which converted the stadium into a vast, open-air cathedral, was the focal point of the third day of the visit.

The Pope arrives in New York today, where he is to deliver an address to the United Nations. The speech is expected to call for a reform of the organisation and mission of the UN to place it at the centre of global diplomacy. On Sunday he will visit Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Centre destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and he will meet some of the families of victims. He will also celebrate an open-air Mass at Yankee Stadium."