I was a young lad when Pope John Paul II visited Colombia. I was in Barranquilla for my summer break from school when the Pontiff came to town. I was part of a procession of children in the cathedral, lining the main aisle, when his Holiness walked in. I stood inches away from a very vital and charismatic Pope at the age of eleven. It was July, 1986.
As a Catholic by birth and faith (although not so much in practice), the significance and importance of the Pope is obvious. Since the Apostle Peter, the first one to hold the position, the Pope has represented the emissary of God on Earth to Catholics. Throughout history there have been good and bad Popes – from the saintly to the corrupt. After all, the Pope is nothing but a man placed in that position by his peers. But is that it? Is he just that?
Whether you're a Catholic or not, you will have to agree that the Pope carries with him a certain aura of holiness. A Papal visit constitutes an event. As Benedict XVI visits the United States, the significance of this first trip can be seen in the media coverage, in the people lining the streets, in the pilgrimages to see him. And they have not necessarily come to see the man; people have come to see what he represents. Inarguably John Paul II was a more beloved Pope than Benedict has been so far. The person who occupies the Papacy adds a different dimension to the position. But at the end of the day, one thing remains constant, and that's the position itself. That's what brings out the crowds. Even as Catholics continue to dwindle in numbers, people turn out in droves.
There is something to be said about the man that represents the original Christian faith. As anything run by man, the Roman Catholic Church has had its moments of great triumph and great shame. It is not been devoid of evil and corruption. This has been one of the reasons why so many other "religions" have spawned off it. I quote the word "religions" not out of disrespect, but because at the core they are all the same Christian religion. They are just different flavors of the same thing – the overarching message is the same. It is clear though that different Christian churches not only focus on different things in the Bible, but they also interpret things differently. This has been the "problem" with the Holy text since its compilation. So where there's room for different interpretations, there will always be room for another "spin-off" religion, sect, or cult. These misinterpretations also turn the Bible into a very effective weapon to further an agenda – almost any agenda.
So the arrival of the Pope, in my eyes, serves as a reminder to Christians that despite all our differences or our devoutness, we all still come from the same church, we all praise the same Savior, have the same core values, and seek the same salvation. In a world full of pastors and preachers and priests and shamans and rabbis and clerics, there is only one Pope. And when he speaks people listen. "God bless America," said the Pope that sunny morning, July 17th, 2008, on the White House lawn. God bless America indeed.
Enclosed and taken from the Associated Press, is the complete transcript of the speech given on the White House lawn by Pope Benedict. I thought about including it because it emphasizes some of the things that make this nation so great. In his speech, the Pope has some very kind words for a nation often demonized by the world community is so strives to help. I found his address very powerful and inspiring. So, for posterity's sake, here it is:
"Mr. President, thank you for your gracious words of welcome on behalf of the people of the United States of America. I deeply appreciate your invitation to visit this great country. My visit coincides with an important moment in the life of the Catholic community in America: the celebration of the 200th anniversary of elevation of the country's first Diocese — Baltimore — to a metropolitan Archdiocese and the establishment of the Sees of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Louisville.
Yet I am happy to be here as a guest of all Americans. I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel, and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society. America's Catholics have made, and continue to make, an excellent contribution to the life of their country. As I begin my visit, I trust that my presence will be a source of renewal and hope for the Church in the United States, and strengthen the resolve of Catholics to contribute ever more responsibly to the life of this nation, of which they are proud to be citizens.
From the dawn of the Republic, America's quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation's founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature's God.
The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement. In our time, too, particularly in moments of crisis, Americans continue to find their strength in a commitment to this patrimony of shared ideas and aspirations.
In the next few days, I look forward to meeting not only with America's Catholic community, but with other Christian communities and representatives of the many religious traditions present in this country. Historically, not only Catholics, but all believers have found here the freedom to worship God in accordance with the dictates of their conscience, while at the same time being accepted as part of a commonwealth in which each individual group can make its voice heard.
As the nation faces the increasingly complex political and ethical issues of our time, I am confident that the American people will find in their religious beliefs a precious source of insight and an inspiration to pursue reasoned, responsible and respectful dialogue in the effort to build a more human and free society. Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience — almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad. The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good, and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one's deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.
In a word, freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Few have understood this as clearly as the late Pope John Paul II. In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in his native Poland and in Eastern Europe, he reminded us that history shows time and again that ‘‘in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation,'' and a democracy without values can lose its very soul. Those prophetic words in some sense echo the conviction of President Washington, expressed in his Farewell Address, that religion and morality represent ‘‘indispensable supports'' of political prosperity.
The Church, for her part, wishes to contribute to building a world ever more worthy of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God. She is convinced that faith sheds new light on all things, and that the Gospel reveals the noble vocation and sublime destiny of every man and woman. Faith also gives us the strength to respond to our high calling and to hope that inspires us to work for an ever more just and fraternal society. Democracy can only flourish, as your founding fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation.
For well over a century, the United States of America has played an important role in the international community. On Friday, God willing, I will have the honor of addressing the United Nations organization, where I hope to encourage the efforts underway to make that institution an ever more effective voice for the legitimate aspirations of all the world's peoples. On this, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the need for global solidarity is as urgent as ever, if all people are to live in a way worthy of their dignity — as brothers and sisters dwelling in the same house and around that table which God's bounty has set for all his children. America has traditionally shown herself generous in meeting immediate human needs, fostering development and offering relief to the victims of natural catastrophes. I am confident that this concern for the greater human family will continue to find expression in support for the patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts and promote progress. In this way, coming generations will be able to live in a world where truth, freedom and justice can flourish — a world where the God-given dignity and the rights of every man, women and child are cherished, protected and effectively advanced.
Mr. President, dear friends, as I begin my visit to the United States, I express once more my gratitude for your invitation, my joy to be in your midst, and my fervent prayers that Almighty God will confirm this nation and its people in the ways of justice, prosperity and peace. God bless America."