By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY, Archbishop of Atlanta | Published April 17, 2008
The Catholic Church in the United States of America will be the focus of intense media attention this week because Peter will be in our midst! People everywhere travel extensively in today’s world, and among those who regularly travel is the Roman Pontiff. Long gone are the days when the pope was “the prisoner of the Vatican.” Before the establishment of the modern day Italian State, the popes did travel, but not with anything like the speed or convenience of today. There is simply no comparison between jet travel, rail or ship, and clearly not horse and coach. Pope John XXIII began the restoration of the tradition of the itinerant pontiffs with a short trip to Assisi, and then Paul VI ratcheted up the activity with many international trips—the Holy Land, the Philippines and the United States. But it took John Paul II to become a member of the “frequent flyer” club. His travels now are legendary and amazing in their scope.
This week, Pope Benedict continues the tradition. Why do popes travel? People obviously flock to see them in huge numbers at the Vatican. The Roman Pontiff travels for the very same reasons that any bishop visits his flock—to be with them in their own environments and in their own faith communities. Every pastor needs to know his people and to continue to deepen his knowledge of the people that he serves.
Most of the attention of the media will be on what we will learn about and from the Holy Father, but I suspect that the Holy Father will be equally interested in discovering more about us. He already knows a great deal about the United States, but he is a scholar and scholars always continue to learn, which is what makes them great scholars—they are never satisfied with what they learn from books and reports. The Holy Father will learn about us in the meetings that he will have, in the religious ceremonies over which he will preside, and from the obvious enthusiasm that greets his visit. Even though most of his itinerary will be highly orchestrated and planned, he will still get a better sense of how we as American Catholics respect, honor and love the Office of the Pope and him in particular.
He will also teach and exhort us—as is his unique pastoral responsibility as the Supreme Pastor of the Universal Church. He will call us to holiness of life and to conversion of heart as is his obligation. He will also encourage us to grow in our Faith, to deepen our love for one another and especially for the poor in our midst. He will urge us to be courageous and bold in being witnesses for Christ Jesus. He will ask us to remain faithful to our sacramental life and to the teachings of our Church.
But he will also glean a deeper appreciation of who we are as Catholics in this particular nation at this particular moment in history. That knowledge will help him when he returns to the Vatican to serve us better in the future. We will meet him and he will meet us, and by God’s grace those encounters will help us all to fulfill the responsibilities that are ours.
May the Lord bless this visit, especially our honored guest and all those who will journey to see him, to learn from him and to reveal a little bit about us as the Church in the United States of America. In the end, may we all be more faithful Catholics and may Pope Benedict XVI find great satisfaction in this pastoral visit to this part of his flock.