Papal Visit: A Personal View
from His Excellency, The Most Reverend Glen John Provost,
Bishop of Lake Charles
The pastoral visit of Pope Benedict XVI had two dimensions for me. One was external, and the other internal. Both made deep impressions on me.
The first involved the sheer logistics and size of this visit. When the Holy Father arrived at the White House on Wednesday morning for the official greeting by President and Mrs. Bush, 13,000 people were assembled on the South Lawn. Officials told us this was the largest gathering of people at the White House during this chief executive's presidency and one of the largest ever in history. It was filled with fanfare. The drum and fife corps, dressed in 18th Century costume, marched, and the Marine band played the national anthems of the United States and the Vatican, as herald trumpets sounded "Hail to the Chief" and a famous African-American opera singer, Kathleen Battle, sang the "Our Father." The Marine conductor invited everyone to sing "Happy Birthday" at the conclusion of the ceremony, since it was the Holy Father's special day.
Thousands lined the streets, as dignitaries were ushered in and out with expert ease by the Washington police department and security personnel. In appreciation, the Catholic bishops of the United States invited the policemen, who had worked so long and hard, to join them for meals at the hotel where the bishops were staying.
The work of these wonderful ladies and gentlemen, who with exceptional hospitality had seen to the comfort and good ordering of the visit, was nowhere more apparent than at the Thursday, April 17th, Mass celebrated in Nationals Stadium. There 46,000 people gathered. When the Holy Father entered, shouts of "Viva" and "Happy Birthday" rose up from the crowd as he circled the field. The voices of thousands proclaimed the praises of the Lord Jesus Christ, as Holy Mass began. The hymns and chants were rousing, with choirs of hundreds accompanied by bands, organs and orchestra.
A truly touching moment came after Holy Communion when Placido Domingo, of "Three Tenors" fame and director of the Washington Opera, sang the ancient Catholic hymn "Panis Angelicus." Pope Benedict XVI at the conclusion, visibly moved, got up from his seat and advanced to the maestro. The maestro fell to his knees before the Holy Father asking his blessing. The congregation of 46,000, who up until that time had held their applause in respectful silence, applauded in appreciation for this gift from God that had raised our thoughts and spirits to the eternal. I was reminded then of what I had experienced internally.
Pope Benedict in his customary way moved us with his message. At every event I attended, he kept repeating a message found in the Sacred Scriptures. We were all called "to make all things new in Christ" (cf. II Corinthians 5:17; Revelation 21:5). To make all things new in Christ, we must eliminate the barriers of secularism. Religion is not a personal matter, he said. We are members of a redeemed community. "Christian faith is essentially ecclesial," he said. In this the Holy Father reminded us of the importance of the Church. The redeemed community must bring the message of Jesus Christ in all its truth to the culture in which it finds itself. That message needs solid religious education and the exercise of free speech. In this way truth and freedom are essential not only to the human family but also to the proclamation of the message. In this atmosphere, faith and reason co-exist and are not contradictory. With this vision, we come to understand that freedom is not doing whatever you want. There is no true freedom without an interior conversion. True freedom is a response, not a license.
The Pope is courageous. He demonstrated that when he met privately with the victims of sexual abuse. He reached out and embraced the suffering and those who had experienced pain and alienation. When he met with the bishops in the crypt of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, he again brought up the topic that he referred to as a "deep shame" and "breech of trust." He felt deep pain, he stated. He called us all back to a "Gospel of life." He reminded us that sexual abuse must be seen in the context of a great need for "a mature view of sexuality." For this "mature view" we must acknowledge that pornography and violence, the abuse of another human being, are detrimental to society.
For the "Gospel of life" to thrive and for society to be strengthened, the Holy Father emphasized the importance of the family. With the weakening of family life, children are deprived of the security they need. The bishop, he told us, is "personally responsible" for promoting this family life. Marriage, between man and woman, is a "yes to life."
The Holy Father reminded us constantly that trials and difficulties bring purification. It takes faith to understand this. With the eyes of faith, we can better understand how our problems and sufferings are part of a larger picture, part of the story of redemption.
Time and time again the Holy Father repeated aspects of his message of hope that pierced me deeply, if I can use that terminology. When he spoke of Christian faith, he emphasized that it is "not a private religion." The Pope emphasized that if our idea of religion is confined only to worshipping on Sunday and do not let our Christian life overflow into the remainder of the week, then religion loses its soul.
The faith we profess on Sunday must fill our week with what we do at work, at home, and at leisure. On the topic of vocations, he said "frankly", "the health of the local Church is gauged by the response of the young to vocation." Vocation work must begin with prayer, and the young must be taught to pray. Only with prayer does one know what to do with God's call. Finally, he reminded the bishops to strengthen their brother priests. To them the bishop must be "father, brother, and friend." He must remind them of the importance and necessity of the Eucharist, the rosary, and the Liturgy of Hours. Prayer for the pastor is never a waste of time.
When I left Washington, I felt that I had not merely had an experience but that I had had an encounter. That encounter transcended time and place. It was an encounter like the one described by the Deputy Fire Chief of New York, James Riches. His son, a firefighter, died in the 9/11 attack. Pope Benedict XVI visited the site on Sunday, April 20th. He prayed with family members and survivors at the base of the destroyed towers. Chief Riches said of the Pope's visit, "Even if he just says a silent prayer, just his presence there is enough. Twenty or 30 years from now, whatever they do down there, this event on Sunday will be something they will tell their children. The pope came all the way from Rome and he blessed this ground."
"The pope came all the way from Rome", and like the Christians in Acts, we sought to touch something of the apostle (cf. Acts 19:12). Peter had visited our house, and what he said to the paralytic, he said to us, "Jesus Christ heals you" (Acts 9:34). Pope Benedict XVI, the successor of St. Peter, had done for me, as a bishop, what the Lord Jesus had asked St. Peter to do. "I have prayed that your own faith may not fail," Jesus said to St. Peter. "You must strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:32). To quote once again the man who lost his son in 9/11, "The pope came all the way from Rome." Such was the encounter of the Christians in the Scriptures. Such is our encounter in the Sacraments. Such was my encounter in Washington.
Devotedly yours in our Risen Lord,
+Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles