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Pope Benedict Says Church, American Society at a ‘Crossroads’

April 17, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Pope Benedict XVI held mass before a crowd of some 45,000 worshipers at the Washington Nationals park Thursday, where he addressed the challenges facing American Catholics. A group of analysts and experts examine the pope's message to Americans.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Catholic faithful began arriving before dawn and on through the early morning.

AMERICAN CATHOLIC: It’s a fantastic experience, and I’m looking forward to it. And hopefully everything is going to go as planned.

AMERICAN CATHOLIC: Everybody is exuberant. It’s like having one foot into Heaven already.

KWAME HOLMAN: They flocked to Nationals Park in southeast Washington, D.C., for Pope Benedict XVI’s first public mass in the United States. More than 45,000 laypeople and 1,500 clergy crowded the newest of Major League Baseball’s green cathedrals to celebrate mass and listen to the soft-spoken, 81-year-old pontiff relate the gospel and its message.

AMBER HARRIS, Volunteer: We got here early, some people even earlier than I, before the Metro opened and before the sun was rising, but it’s been great. Everybody’s so excited to be here to see our holy father and to serve our fellow Catholics.

KWAME HOLMAN: The outdoor service on a bright, spring day was one of the highlights of the pope’s trip to the nation’s capital. Security was tight and thorough, with long lines for screening. Nearby major roadways and bridges were closed and over-flight restrictions imposed.

Outside and inside the park-made-parish, there were papal souvenirs, mementos of the moment.

Six-year-old Peter Roach (ph), one of many children in attendance, attracted lots of attention with his home-made papal mitre.

Nine-year-old Tyler Cleaver.

TYLER CLEAVER: I’ve never seen the pope before, and I’ve wanted to see him for a while.

KWAME HOLMAN: A group of deacons from the Archdiocese of Washington was there to act as Eucharistic ministers.

CATHOLIC DEACON: It’s a link for people to come here to see their leader, who’s often very distant from across waters, if you will. But it’s a good time to see him come to the United States and bring his message of hope.

DEACON KEVIN MUKRI: We’re not here just to see a man; we’re here to see the vicar of Christ. We’re seeing Peter the Apostle, the successor to Peter, the one who holds the keys to the kingdom, who does God’s will both in Heaven and on Earth. And it’s a very — it’s just a celebration of our Catholic faith.

KWAME HOLMAN: Deacon Tom Dwyer had one of the 20 tickets reserved for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

DEACON TOM DWYER: I think that it will cap off his message to the United States and the world with everything that he’s coming to talk about, going to Ground Zero, and striving for peace. And I just think it’s going to be a beautiful message that will thrive from, even after he leaves.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hundreds of reporters came to document the event and speak with the faithful and their leaders. Father Alberto Cutie came from Miami for the mass.

FATHER ALBERT CUTIE: I believe his message is very unique. He’s a message of peace, of justice. He brings us a message of really hope in times of difficult economy issues, issues with immigration, issues that affect all Americans.

And as a Hispanic-American, I feel especially privileged that he would come and recognize the presence of Latinos in this country. I think that’s very important.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hundreds more watched the mass from outside the stadium. They were joined by a small number of protesters.

Inside, Pope Benedict arrived in his pope-mobile for a brief tour around the park. The pope was assisted in the liturgy by four cardinals, 250 bishops, and more than 1,300 priests.

An elaborate papal procession moved to an ornate stage erected in centerfield, as choral strains of “Hallelujah” filled the park.

SPEAKER: Holy Father, welcome to Washington.

KWAME HOLMAN: The crowd gave the pope a rousing welcome and ovation, and the appreciation was returned in kind.

POPE BENEDICT XVI, Vatican City: In the name of the father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit…

CROWD: Amen.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: … peace be with you.

KWAME HOLMAN: There were readings in several languages. Then, Benedict XVI gave his homily.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: “Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, peace be with you.” With these, the first words of the risen lord to his disciples, I greet all of you in the joy of this Easter season. Before all else, I thank God for the blessing of being in your midst.

KWAME HOLMAN: The pope spoke of the challenges facing American Catholics.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: Who can deny that the present moment is a crossroads, not only for the church in America, but also for society as a whole? It is a time of great promise, as we see the human family in many ways drawing closer together and becoming ever more interdependent.

Yet at the same time, we see clear signs of a disturbing breakdown in the very foundations of society: signs of alienation, anger and polarization on the part of many of our contemporaries; increased violence; a weakening of the moral sense; a coarsening of social relations; and a growing forgetfulness of Christ and God.

KWAME HOLMAN: The pope also acknowledges failures of the church in America.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: I acknowledge the pain which the church in America has experienced as a result of the sexual abuse of minors. No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse.

It is important that those who have suffered be given loving pastoral attention. Nor can I adequately describe the damage that has occurred within the community of the church.

Yesterday I spoke with your bishops about this. Today, I encourage each of you to do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation and to assist those who have been hurt.

Also, I ask you to love your priests and to affirm them in the excellent work that they do.

KWAME HOLMAN: Then came the offering of gifts: 300 deacons and priests fanned out to distribute communion to thousands.

The tenor Placido Domingo, who is the director of the Washington Opera, followed the breaking of bread with the hymn “Panis Angelicus” — “The Bread of Angels” — part of a hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas.

And at the end, a final benediction from the pope.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: May almighty God bless you, the father and the son and the Holy Spirit.

SPEAKER: The mass is ended. Go in peace.

Addressing abuse crisis

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey Brown takes it from there.

JEFFREY BROWN: After all the expectations, what is the pope actually saying? We take a closer look at his words and message now, with Father Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. He's the former editor of the Catholic magazine America.

And Father Joseph Fessio, professor of theology at the Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, and editor of Ignatius Press, which publishes the pope's writings in English. He's a former student of Pope Benedict.

Welcome to both of you.

Before we get to the words, the news that this afternoon the pope actually met with a group of sexual abuse victims, was that a surprise to you, Father Reese?

FATHER TOM REESE, Catholic Priest: It wasn't really a surprise, but I think it was tremendous that he did this. I mean, the pope has addressed the sex abuse crisis from the very beginning.

On the plane, on the way over here, he talked about how ashamed he was by what these priests did. Then, when he met with the bishops, he acknowledged that sometimes the bishops handled this badly, very badly. And then, even in his homily, as we just heard, he addressed it to the American people and the American Catholics.

Now, meeting with the victims was extremely important. The sex abuse crisis has been a terrible wound on the American church.

You know, the wound has been stitched up, you know, but -- it's not bleeding anymore, but it isn't healed. It's still very painful, especially for those people who suffered from this abuse.

And, you know, I think what he's done is going to help in the healing. And he's calling on Catholics all over the country to be healers in this process.

Pope's caution against materialism

JEFFREY BROWN: When we look at some of the words we just heard, Father Fessio, he spoke in the mass today, he talked about a weakening of the moral sense, a growing forgetfulness of God. What exactly is he saying? And to whom is he speaking?

FATHER JOSEPH FESSIO, Catholic Priest: Well, he's speaking at the mass especially to Catholics. And I agree with Father Reese, that that was very important that he made that symbolic act of meeting with the victims and also spoke so many times about the abuse crisis.

But he came here as a sign of hope. His theme is "Christ Our Hope." And there's 48,000 priests in this country that were not involved in that crisis, and most Catholics weren't involved, horrible as it was.

So I think he's trying to talk to the whole of the Catholic people and at the same time to the leaders, giving us encouragement, but recognizing there are dangers we have to face.

And those are what you mentioned, the secularism you mentioned, individualism, materialism, and the faith has to be strong in resisting those things.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think? When he's talking about the increasingly secular and materialistic culture, this is a -- you know him well. This is a very cultured man himself. He knows the culture of the United States. What is he saying?

FATHER TOM REESE: Well, what I think he's saying is he recognizes how important freedom is to the American people. And this has been a theme in a number of his talks while he's been here.

But he talks about that freedom comes with responsibility and that we have to use our freedom for the common good, not just for selfish self-interest, that we have to use our freedom to make the world a better place, to work for justice, to work for peace in our country and around the world.

So he's come, I think, to inspire us, but also to challenge us, to use our resources, to use our freedom for the good of the world.

Confronting controversial teachings

JEFFREY BROWN: How strong is the challenge? Now, we did a discussion on Tuesday on the program where we looked at some of the polls, the disconnects that are there between the American Catholic community and the teachings of the church on things like contraception, homosexuality, even abortion, where majorities disagree with the teachings of the church.

So do you hear him addressing those specifically?

FATHER JOSEPH FESSIO: Not specifically, but he has a different approach, and he does not generally confront people directly with these challenges, but he goes more deeply into the principles.

For example, his first encyclical was called "God is Love." He spoke about not just charity, but Eros, the love of Eros, and showed how it needs to be purified and the church doesn't reject it.

He did not come and condemn homosexuality; he did not condemn promiscuity or divorce. But what he said was, if we take Eros as a beautiful gift of God and recognize what its interior dynamism is, it leads to permanence. It's between a man and a woman. It leads to exclusivity. Basically, it leads to marriage.

So he's confronting the challenge, but by going down into fundamental principles to get people common agreement on those principles and then lead them further. So I do think he's addressing the challenge, but he's not going to do it as specifically as we might like.

FATHER TOM REESE: I think, you know, the pope himself has said that Christianity should not be presented as a series of noes.

Christianity ought to be presented as a series of yeses, that what we're saying yes to is love, what we're saying yes to is that we are a people that are committed to justice and concerned about the poor, protecting life in whatever way we can, whether it's in war or in hospitals.

He wants to present it as an attractive message to people in the United States, and not just be someone who comes with a list of noes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet there are the polls and the majorities that seem to disagree. So is there a point where he does have to take a stronger action?

FATHER JOSEPH FESSIO: Well, Jeffrey, his point is to try and change hearts, like Jesus did, like the apostles were meant to do, and like their successors were meant to do. And he knows he's not going to change hearts by simply issuing condemnations.

And I agree with Father Reese again. He's trying to emphasize the positive here. He said that, in fact, in his talk, I think to the bishops, it's a yes to life, it's a yes to love, the church's teaching on marriage and the dignity of a human person.

So we all know what church's teaching is. I mean, most people are aware of that; that's why they disagree with it. But he's trying to show the positive side and start with the positive.

Upholding academic freedom

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you about another sensitive subject in a democracy like ours, academic freedom, or the freedom to say what you want. This afternoon, he spoke to a group of university presidents, I think it was, or educators.

And he said, "I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission."

Now, there would seem to be a contradiction.

FATHER TOM REESE: I don't think so. I mean, I think that he's affirming academic freedom, and certainly this is what the presidents wanted to hear, what professors in Catholic universities wanted to hear, that he does affirm and respect academic freedom.

But at the same time, like any kind of freedom, he says it can be abused. If someone is teaching falsehood, whether it's in chemistry or theology or wherever, then they're abusing their academic freedom.

Now, does that mean that the person should be fired? No, he didn't say that. But he's exercising his academic freedom. He's going to say when he disagrees with someone. And that's quite legitimate.

But, you know, in the American setting, academic freedom means that, once a person has tenure and a contract with a university, they've got a job and you can't fire them no matter what they say or write or teach.

JEFFREY BROWN: He actually -- again, you knew him as an academic and a scholar. This is his approach to dealing with problems like this?

FATHER JOSEPH FESSIO: It is. He recognizes the relative autonomy of an institution of learning like that. And as Father Reese has said, he's got the freedom to express his opinion.

And no one should use academic freedom as a way of undermining the church, because the church has the freedom also to have institutions that protect and defend and explain the faith.

But I think they're compatible. They're compatible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you briefly one last thing. We're in the middle of a political campaign. The reporter John Allen was on our show last night, and he talked about how inevitably, when the Catholic vote is in play, so to speak, people will be looking to -- listening for things that might have some kind of impact.

Did you hear anything that would be parsed in political conversations?

FATHER JOSEPH FESSIO: You'd have to listen awfully hard, because he's smart enough not to get involved in American politics. But he is going to express principles: solidarity with the poor; global solidarity; immigration; obviously the pro-life, defending the sacredness of life from conception to natural death.

He is making it clear what the fundamental principles are. And he's told us we have a great challenge in our country to go live according to those principles. So voters will listen to that and hopefully they'll make the proper connection.

JEFFREY BROWN: Time for a brief answer.

FATHER TOM REESE: I agree. I agree with Joe. The pope has come with a big agenda, a wide agenda, that doesn't fit into either Republican or Democratic political platforms.

He's not here to endorse a candidate. He's going to talk about political issues because they're moral issues. But then the voter has to decide for themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, thank you very both very much, Father Tom Reese, Father Joseph Fessio, thanks.