Since I returned home from travels to Washington, D.C., and New York City to participate in Pope Benedict’s pastoral visit, many people have asked me questions about the experience: What did you enjoy most? Were you pleased with the issues he addressed and the way he handled them? What do you remember most fondly? Do you think Pope Benedict’s visit will make a difference?
In those several conversations, I have tried to respond honestly to the questioners. Indeed, you will read in the May issue of the Catholic Courier some of my comments in an article by Amy Kotlarz.
Here, I wish to share a couple of moments in the visit to New York City which, taken together, have been good bread for me in the days since and which will continue to nourish me in the days ahead. The first moment came during brief, unscripted comments that our Holy Father made to the congregation at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday morning, April 19. The second was the April 19 talk he gave to participants in the youth rally at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers.
At the end of the liturgy at St. Patrick’s, Pope Benedict folded into his words of thanks to all an impromptu request for the prayers of those present. He reminded us that he occupied the Chair of Peter — an awesome responsibility, to say the least. He acknowledged Peter’s greatness but also recognized that Peter, like all of us, was sometimes weak and needed compassion and forgiveness. Our Holy Father acknowledged that he, too, was in need of God’s mercy and compassion and asked the assembly to hold him in prayer that he might always recognize that need in himself, and be open to God’s gifts.
That moment stayed with me through the day, and was something of an audio filter through which I heard his words to the 20,000 young people gathered on the grounds of the seminary.
In one of the major portions of his address, he encouraged the young church to three commitments.
1) To be people of prayer: Pope Benedict described the Christian life as a long, intimate friendship with the Lord. He told the young people (and some of us old timers!) that we are grateful for and are true to friendship when we speak our hearts to our friends and listen attentively to them. So in prayer, through God’s grace, we grow in knowledge and love of the Lord and draw strength to live the Christian life with love and fidelity.
In his comments encouraging the kids’ prayer, the Holy Father made a particular point to invite them to enjoy the gift of silence as a regular part of life. I think Pope Benedict is aware of how busy we are, how complex life can be and of how “wired” we are as a people. He simply invited us to stop, to rest, to listen — to be attentive to the quiet voice of God who speaks to us in many and varied ways. I think he was asking us, “What do you hear when you stop everything and just listen?” I think it is a wonderful question.
2) To do works of charity: The Holy Father recognized the generosity of those present and reminded them that to serve others in imitation of and in the Spirit of Christ is a rich way to union with God and neighbor. His theme was that we are called to the Christ-life and live as disciples not as isolated individuals but as members of one body.
Service of others is a way of deepening life and discovery of the Lord, our neighbor and ourselves. Pope Benedict encouraged his young friends to commit themselves to these works, not as something optional and extra, but as works that flow from the very nature of the Christian life.
3) To be courageous in responding to God’s call: Earlier in the program, mention was made of the saints and the blessed who lived and served in the New York region — Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, St. John Neumann, Pierre Toussaint, etc. In his comments, the Holy Father described them as ordinary people who by God’s grace did extraordinary things.
Following his theme of prayer, Pope Benedict called the young people to be attentive to God’s call in their own lives. He noted that God speaks to us in our prayer, through our parents, mentors and friends, in the talent God gives us, and in the desire and attractions of our hearts.
To that call to attentiveness, he added the reminder that courage is often required to make those life decisions. Whether in married or single life, priesthood or vowed religious life, the Christian way calls us to share in the cross of Christ. Our Holy Father expressed deep confidence that the Lord would strengthen their hearts to respond to his call, and that such a response in faith and courage would lead them to a deep sense of peace and fulfillment.
Thinking back on the reference to St. Peter, and to the address at the seminary, I had the sense that the pope was speaking not just to the kids but to you and me. He was calling us as well to prayer, to works of charity, to courage in following the Lord even when the road is rough.
Finally, remembering that the pope celebrated his 81st birthday during his visit to us, the insight came to me that at the seminary he was describing what he has tried to do all of his life. And, that at St. Patrick’s he was encouraging us that no matter how long we are at it — whether pope or teen — we daily need God’s mercy, compassion and understanding.
I am grateful for those words of encouragement and consolation.
Peace to all.