Less Was More

Benedict XVI in America

In the days leading up to the arrival of Pope Benedict in the United States, a number of media outlets contacted BustedHalo.com to get “our take” on the papal visit. During the interviews I did, I discovered a few themes developing that generally went something like: “Why isn’t Pope Benedict’s pending trip to America not a bigger deal?” or “Don’t the statistics about Catholic practice among young adults in the United States indicate that the pope is out of touch with the reality of American life?” There seemed to be some real skepticism about just how relevant Pope Benedict was and how much his trip to the United States truly mattered.

In an age where media and audience fragmentation continues to whittle away at our society’s sense of shared experience, it’s becoming more difficult to convince people of the importance of events that aren’t Presidential elections or Super Bowls. The task is made exponentially more difficult when it involves a public figure like the pope who doesn’t fit neatly into existing categories (liberal/conservative, traditional/ progressive etc). But since his return to Rome four days ago, my lingering impression of Pope Benedict’s time in the United States is that it was—to borrow a phrase from the lexicon of business strategy—a triumph of under promising and over delivering.

Tough Act

Since his departure on Sunday night, the most common reaction that I’ve heard from a variety of people across the board religiously and politically—and one that I share—is genuine surprise at just how important and positive Benedict’s visit turned out to be. Is that simply a function of expectations being so low for anyone who succeeded the charismatic and media savvy John Paul II? The last pope was certainly a tough act to follow, but the impact of last week’s visit can’t be explained away that easily.

Years after the sex abuse scandal first erupted, who could have foreseen how deeply wounded the Church still was and how powerful it would be to hear the Pope speak so openly and pastorally about this shameful time in our history? There were no attempts to blame the media for blowing the story out of proportion. There was no sense of the defensiveness and obfuscation that often characterized the responses from American Church officials in the past. Tragically, the process of healing may never be complete for countless victims but the pope’s openness and sincere humility not only made it clear that he truly “got it;” it also served as a pastoral model for how others in the Church need to respond.

What will remain long after Pope Benedict’s words however will be a simple, pastoral act.

Could this shy, academic 81-year old really be the same man who used to be referred to as the Panzer Cardinal? It was oddly disarming to finally hear Benedict speak for an extended period in English during his numerous homilies and speeches. Over the course of his six days in the United States, he spoke eloquently to University presidents about the search for truth being an act of love. He addressed the United Nations about human dignity and human rights. He even spoke movingly about division inside the Church and the need to listen to diverse voices within it. But the central themes he returned to time and again were hope and the need for a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. We tend to hear an awful lot about Jesus in the United States but in Benedict XVI’s hands that message contained a completely different type of gravity.

Time to Unpack

During a local New York television appearance, New York Times‘ columnist Peter Steinfels commented that Benedict was “not a sound bite pope.” Steinfels suggested that it would be important in the weeks after Benedict’s visit to study what he said during his trip. He argued that the depth and nuance of the pope’s thinking deserved more than the glossy, perfunctory analysis that often accompanies the mainstream media’s coverage. It remains to be seen whether people will take the time to unpack his words—there is always so much else competing for our time and attention—but after re-reading several of his talks I agree that it would be wise not to simply lump his words together with all the rest of the detritus of our daily lives. There is a depth to the pope’s message that resists easy digestion.
What will remain long after his words however will be a simple, pastoral act. Away from the cameras and microphones, Pope Benedict met privately with five victims from the Archdiocese of Boston, the epicenter of the sexual abuse crisis in America. If John Paul II was the master of grand, symbolic gestures on the world stage, Benedict’s decision to meet with a small group of victims—away from the media’s glare—revealed him to be a master of small, symbolic deeds whose resonance is incalculable.

The texts of Pope Benedict’s Homilies and Addresses while in the United States

Benedict XVI’s Homily at Yankee’s Stadium
Look to the Future With Hope

Papal Prayer at Ground Zero
God of Peace, Bring Your Peace to Our Violent World

Pope’s Meeting With Youth and Seminarians
God Is Our Origin and Our Destination, and Jesus the Way

Pope’s Address to Young People With Disabilities
God Has Blessed You With Life

Pope’s Homily During Mass at St. Patrick’s
Communicate the Joy Born of Faith and the Experience of God’s Love

Papal Greeting to Jewish Leaders
Continue Building Bridges of Friendship

Pontiff’s Address at Ecumenical Prayer Service
A Faithful Witness to the Gospel Is As Urgent As Ever

Papal Address to UN Staff
I Would Like to Express My Personal Appreciation

Pope’s Homily at Nationals Stadium
Americans Have Always Been a People of Hope

Papal Address to Interreligious Leaders
A United Society Can Indeed Arise From a Plurality of Peoples

Benedict XVI’s Address to Catholic Educators
Freedom Is Not an Opting out, it Is an Opting In

Pontiff’s Greeting to Jewish Community

The Past 40 Years Has Fundamentally Changed Our Relationship for the Better

Benedict XVI’s Address to US Bishops
The People of This Country Are Known for Their Great Vitality and Creativity

Pontiff’s Address at White House
Faith Sheds New Light on All Things