As we prepare to host Pope Francis as he comes to the United States later this month, the exhilarating visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 still remains in our memories as a moment of grace for the Church of Washington and for our nation.
The theme of Pope Benedict’s apostolic journey to the United States was “Christ our hope,” that in the Risen Jesus, we are saved, and he proclaimed this hope in his homily at the Mass at Nationals Park. “As the successor of Peter, I have come to America to confirm you, my brothers and sisters, in the faith of the Apostles,” he said. “I have come to proclaim anew, as Peter proclaimed on the day of Pentecost, that Jesus Christ is Lord and Messiah, risen from the dead.”
Throughout his visit to our city and to our country – indeed throughout his pontificate – Pope Benedict was truly a witness to Christ our hope. “Through the surpassing power of Christ’s grace, entrusted to frail human ministers, the Church is constantly reborn and each of us is given the hope of a new beginning,” he continued. “Let us trust in the Spirit’s power to inspire conversion, to heal every wound, to overcome every division, and to inspire new life and freedom. How much we need these gifts!”
With his message of Christian hope, everywhere Pope Benedict went, he was greeted with cheering crowds. Catholic schoolchildren serenaded the Holy Father outside the Apostolic Nunciature, singing “Happy birthday” to him in German on the morning of his 81st birthday, and people lined the streets to see him in the Popemobile. Later, I heard from so many people – including many who are not Catholic – of how his presence and message so positively affected them. I was told that many people decided to return to the practice of the faith, and many were inspired to vocations to the priesthood or religious life.
When Pope Benedict met with President George W. Bush at the White House, he spoke of how freedom, particularly religious freedom, has marked the American experience. Later, the Holy Father told the U.S. bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception that, in the face of the serious challenges of secularism, materialism and individualism, “any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted. Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel.”
Urging us to the New Evangelization, the Pope then said, “What is needed above all, at this time in the history of the Church in America, is a renewal of that apostolic zeal which inspires her shepherds actively to seek out the lost, to bind up those who have been wounded, and to bring strength to those who are languishing.” Pope Benedict likewise beseeched Catholic educators to bear witness to hope by revitalizing the Catholic identity of their institutions. In this way, he said, our Catholic schools “become places in which God’s active presence in human affairs is recognized and in which every young person discovers the joy of entering into Christ’s ‘being for others.’”
Pope Benedict would also participate in an interfaith prayer service at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center (now the Saint John Paul II National Shrine). After traveling to New York, he addressed the United Nations, celebrated Mass at Yankee Stadium, gave hope to young people with disabilities, inspired seminarians and young people at a rally, and offered prayers at Ground Zero.
The Holy Father’s pastoral visit to Washington and to the Church in the United States in 2008 was a blessing for all of us, offering a time of spiritual renewal as he brought us Christ and his Gospel of love and hope. Each of his talks and homilies are worthy of continued reflection.
We still remember and hold in our hearts his words at Nationals Park: “Those who have hope must live different lives! (cf. Spe Salvi, 2). By your prayers, by the witness of your faith, by the fruitfulness of your charity, may you point the way toward 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 Savior. To him be all honor and glory, now and forever. Amen!”
Pope Benedict inspired us to continue the challenge to make all things new in Christ, our hope. Like the Apostles before us, we are Jesus’ witnesses to the world, and we can share his love and truth in our everyday lives in our homes, our schools, our workplaces and our communities.