n retrospect, the Pope visit to the United States was always going to have a strong focus on the sexual abuse scandal . When news of the crisis broke in the United States in 2002 the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was not only scandalised by the crimes, but genuinely horrified.
He had to study the cases in detail as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, leading him to speak of the need to cleanse the priesthood of "filth" in his Good Friday meditations in 2005. It was also the main mason for his appointment of American Cardinal William Levada. then Archbishop of San Francisco, as his successor as Prefect of the Congregation.
So on his visit to the United States the Pope apologised and spoke of his own personal "shame" five times. It was an approach that, if it didn't quite draw a line under the scandal, signified the beginning of its end. And in allowing it to be mentioned early on, at a press conference on the papal plane to Washington, the Vatican showed uncharacteristic media savvy, pre-empting press speculation and allowing the Pope to call the shots instead of the. other way round.
Indeed, his handling of the issue was masterful in almost every way. In addressing it forthrightly and without a shred of dissimulation or making of excuses. he proffered an approach that in some way compensated for those American bishops who refused to confront the crisis long before it unravelled six years ago. Benedict XVI's talk of the Church's (and his) "shame" was both courageous and appropriate, exactly the correct response of the virtuous to an abominable situation.
His meeting with the victims in Washington was also impressively well-executed, and the Vatican did well to ensure that news of the meeting was not leaked beforehand. Even Fr Federico Lombardi, the papal spokesman, was genuinely unaware of such a meeting until shortly before it took place. By keeping such strict secrecy, it preserved such a sacred moment from any media exploitation.
But for the Pope the higher goal was undoubtedly to help turn such monstrous crimes into some kind of good. This was accomplished simply through the Pope's apologies and sincere sense of shame which demonstrated that, however heinous the sin, healing and reconciliation can take place. It truly was, as Cardinal Bertone had said shortly before the visit, a time in which oil would be placed on the. wounds.
Concerning other messages he wanted to convey to the American Church and the rest of the world. the Pope had all the time and attention he needed. He must hase known that. with America's well-oiled media machine, this was a golden opportunity in which to focus on those themes closest to his heart, and which concern him most.
He stressed the importance of the natural law being the basis of human rights, the necessity of conviction in reaffirming Catholic identity to Catholic university representatives, and in an extraordinarily eloquent discourse to you Catholics in Yonkers he emphasised the importance of liberty, but also the responsibility that goes with it.
That speech was undoubtedly from the hand of the Pope himself. Others, however, clearly were not. His discourse to the United Nations, while loaded with important points, had a bureaucratic style. So, too, did parts of his speech to Catholic universities. That disappointed some, but the paints he made were nevertheless strong and likely to be the suaject of study in years to come.
One of the most moving aspects of the visit, however, was not only his prayer at Ground Zero, which struck all the right notes. but the warmth of his reception by the American people. Even those sceptical of Pope Benedict (vho before this visit was largely an unknown personality to many American people) were won over by his simple eloquence, meekness and smiling demeanour.
Inevitable comparisons with John Paul II hale beet widespread in the American press. The New York Tines, sceptical ' of the Church at the best of times, published a piece which explained that while Benedict won Americans'great respect, their true love remains with John Paul IL But, as with anything Benedict XVI does, instant effects or popularity, although they might be present. are rot what he is looking for. Rather, he wants his words to be digested and, through God's grace, produce fruits that stad the test of time. And above all, he wants people's attention la be drected not towards him, nor principally to his messagesbut to Christ himself:
Rome Correspondent: Edward Pentin E-mail: [email protected]