By CAROL ZIMMERMANN, CNS | Published May 1, 2008
When Pope Benedict XVI left New York April 20 after his six-day visit to the United States, Catholics were catching their breath from the whirlwind tour and many were trying to figure out what kind of impact the visit would leave in its wake.
The trip—anticipated since last November—prompted a fair amount of guesswork about what the pontiff would and wouldn’t say. Pope Benedict, not swayed by hearsay, frequently reiterated that the theme of the visit was “Christ Our Hope” and stressed his optimism that the visit would prompt “a time of spiritual renewal for all Americans.”
Whether he was addressing international or interreligious leaders, educators, priests and religious, bishops, youths or baseball stadiums full of Catholics, the pope stuck with that message of hope in Christ throughout his various stops.
Overall reviews of the papal visit were positive and then some.
“In general, the visit was a terrific success. He hit a home run every time he went up to bat,” said Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center in Washington.
Pre-trip speculation about whether Pope Benedict would address the clergy sex abuse crisis was put aside from the start when the pope spoke on the plane ride to Washington of being “deeply ashamed” about the scandal. He followed those comments with several other references to the abuse scandal and then a personal meeting with abuse victims.
The pope did “exactly what American Catholics needed and wanted to see” from the person with the highest authority in the church, Father Reese said, adding that the directness will have a positive impact on the church.
“He took the issue seriously, knowing that apologizing once wasn’t going to do it,” the priest added.
Thomas Groome, director of the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College, called the pope’s visit a “resounding success,” where he “did and said all the right things.”
In an e-mail to Catholic News Service, Groome said Pope Benedict offered Catholics and other Christians of this country a “new apologetic” for their faith that he described as “one of persuasion rather than legislation,” where he encouraged people to follow the “way of Jesus” to find freedom, truth and happiness.
The pope also reached out to young people, making reference to them in homilies and meeting with them on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., April 19.
Mike Hayes, associate director of Paulist Young Adult Ministries in New York and managing editor of the Paulist online site BustedHalo.com, said the immediate impact of Pope Benedict’s visit might not necessarily be a flood of new vocations despite encouragement in that direction. Instead, he said, more young people will be “interested in connecting with what it means to be Catholic in today’s world.”
To those who wondered how Pope Benedict would fill Pope John Paul II’s shoes, especially with youths and young adults, Hayes has this perspective: “Where (Pope) John Paul was a rock star, (Pope) Benedict might be the audiobook.”
Simply put, people came to be with Pope John Paul; they came to listen to Pope Benedict, he told CNS April 24.
Pope Benedict is “very direct, telling people, ‘This is where we need to be,’” Hayes said, noting that even though the pope is “not a sound-bite guy” his directness is “something that young people really connect with.”
And they weren’t just thrilled to see him for the moment either, because, as Hayes pointed out, many young adults have read Pope Benedict’s two encyclicals on hope and love and now, of course, they can read his various messages to the U.S. church.
Reading material is certainly one thing Pope Benedict left behind with papal texts available online at: www.uspapalvisit.org. As Father Reese pointed out, the pope’s substantive speeches and homilies will “require reading and rereading.”
The pope also left behind an improved image of himself among U.S. Catholics. Just two weeks before his arrival, only 18 percent of the general public and 37 percent of Catholics said they knew a lot about Pope Benedict.
If the poll were redone now, Father Reese said, “the pope’s approval rating should skyrocket.”