Fr. Patrick LaBelle, O.P.: A Campus Perspective on the Papal Visit

I found myself watching virtually every part of the recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI that I could find on CNN or other media coverage. My interests had to do with what he would say that would distress me or (though not likely) cause me to celebrate. So I watched and listened for statements or behavior that had to do with Christian/Muslim relations, the sexual abuse story, election issues particularly relating to what constitutes a “sinful” life that would disqualify a Catholic politician from receiving the Eucharist, perhaps the issue of war and peace, marriage or pre-marital issues, etc. I was preparing my excuses, my responses, and my soul for what could have been a disaster. I expected I would be among the liberal American Catholic leaders who feel both an obligation and love relative to the church and an anger relative to much of what Vatican functionaries have to say. I was as ready as I could be for a six-day papal visit.

As the days unfolded my entire arsenal proved useless. A few things happened that disarmed me and, perhaps, disappointed others. In a sense, Benedict did nothing wrong. Even more surprising, he did many things even better than well. The group I serve, an “elite” university that has no church relationship, let me know from the outset that they were happy with what was happening, especially the undergraduates.

When the pope raised the issue of the sexual abuse scandal on the plane from Rome, he opened a door that had been opened before, but incorrectly so. That he gave a “press conference” on board Shepherd One was itself a rare interaction with reporters and their questions. His remarks throughout the visit about this painful issue demonstrated an understanding that most of us felt no Vatican official had, and he made it clear — often in carefully veiled ecclesiastical language that the clergy, at least, understood — that the irresponsibility was over. Benedict’s agreeing with Cardinal George of Chicago, when he publicly blamed the bishops for their handling of the issue, was his way of saying that this was his position too, and he was not happy. He made it clear to all that the blame had to be accepted and the pain of the victims had to be spoken of as a public sin rather than a financial crisis. In meeting and praying with a representative group of victims, he offered an example that I believe the bishops should follow. While some of them have already tried to make peace, many have not. The Holy Father told the bishops particularly to get to work. The on-campus response to these gestures and statements was hooray for the pope!

Benedict’s avoidance of the issues of a married clergy or the ordination of women may have disappointed many, but what delighted some, including me, was his studious avoidance of unnecessarily insensitive gender language. He consistently tried to be inclusive in areas where he had genuine control and, if one were to go back and listen to the other speakers representing the church, they did the same. In church settings those things simply do not “happen” on their own.

The student reaction? Again, hooray for the pope. One Stanford student wrote in a blog meant for Catholic students who gather to say the Rosary together: Isn’t our pope cool? The only event that was not clearly open to women was his address to the priests and bishops. On every other occasion women were given high visibility and, as far as I can tell, complete access.

The issue of Christian/Muslim relations was one that caused me great worry. My university has a large Muslim population, and we work very hard to build a genuine community of friendship and intelligent cooperation and dialogue. The same is true for the Jewish community on campus. Benedict seemed to recognize the need to make clear his own position is one favoring this intelligent and peaceful dialogue, and he challenged all Catholics to do the same. Again, the student response to a person was positive. The pope told every Catholic, those who think him wonderful as well as those who still hold legitimate suspicions about the old “hound of orthodoxy,” that this dialogue is the only way to genuine peace and that it is our duty to do whatever is necessary to make peace and not war.

I believe the pope also took issue in his own way with the various policies of the United States that allow for domination by the rich and powerful and for unilateral behavior and unfriendly attitudes toward the United Nations. This happened in virtually every public utterance that was focused on what we would call politics. He raised the issue when he was at the White House, in his address to the United Nations, in his references during both liturgical events, and in other venues. He even made modest though clear references as he was leaving the country.

My final comment has to do with liturgy. Nothing has divided the American Catholic Church more than the liturgy. Benedict said nothing about proper celebrations. Instead, he demonstrated that there is a time and place for everything and for every musical and liturgical tradition. He seemed to me to be as comfortable gently enjoying the very classical expressions of music and ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Yankee Stadium as he was at the youth events at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers. He tried, I believe, to remind us that the most important things are not liturgical norms. Rather, we should come together and worship and celebrate the presence of God in word, sacrament, and service. That was his spoken and unspoken message.

The student response, again, was one of happy acceptance of Benedict’s way of teaching. He also made sure that at no time was the moment about himself. In stark contrast to Pope John Paul II, the consummate performer, Benedict established a collegial way of dealing with the bishops and a manner of speaking that placed the focus on Jesus and his message of hope rather than on himself as the messenger. With John Paul II it was always the messenger first and the message as an afterthought.

One young woman responded, in an interview, when it was pointed out that she was cheering for Benedict one moment and living her life with little or no reference to his teaching the next: “He has his right to his opinions.” Benedict knew this and taught rather than entertained. The students demonstrated just as much love for him as they did for the last pope, but with a higher level of understanding of the difference between the teacher and the teaching.

There was much more I would like to have seen, but when I view the entire event realistically, it was just six days, and dozens of times when he was stage-center, and he is 81 years old. This will not be his last visit to the U.S., and he will continue to demonstrate his understanding of the U.S. Catholic Church as he appoints bishops to serve the people. We are truly blessed on the West Coast with a series of episcopal appointments that insure the future health and growth of the church in all of its parts.

By making no mistakes Benedict may have been a disappointment to some on all sides of the religious and political scene. But for the majority of students Benedict was a hit, and in July he will be meeting thousands of them again in Sydney for World Youth Day.

–Fr. Patrick LaBelle, O.P. is director of the Catholic Community at Stanford University.