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Photo: Marie Romagnano

On April 20, 2008, the faithful were overjoyed to greet the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI as he arrived to celebrate the closing Mass of his pastoral visit to the US.

The Pope in the U.S.

At Concluding Mass, Pope Urges His Flock to Use Freedom Wisely in Advancing God's Kingdom.

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By David Came (Apr 24, 2008)
On April 20, at Yankee Stadium, shortly before Pope Benedict XVI celebrated the closing Mass of his pastoral visit to the U.S., the clouds parted and the sun began to shine. It proved symbolic of the hope in Christ that the Holy Father sought to instill in his flock in America that has been weighed down by the clergy sexual abuse scandal — a scandal he addressed repeatedly and forcefully throughout his visit.

During his homily, the Pontiff said that he came to encourage his flock in America to celebrate their diverse unity, to help them understand "real freedom" and use it wisely, and to "create new 'settings of hope' (see Spe Salvi, 32) where God's Kingdom becomes present in all its saving power."

A New Spirit of Hope

Even as the nearly 60,000 faithful assembled in the stadium and awaited the Holy Father's arrival, you could sense a new spirit of hope in the air. It was typified by the thunderous applause that punctuated the performances of singers like Jose Feliciano, Ronan Tynan, and Dana during the "Concert of Hope" that was held before the papal Mass.

It was also expressed by individual worshippers of Pope Benedict's diverse American flock. As one religious sister from Rutland, Vt., seated next to this reporter, said of the scandal, "Benedict named it. He's given us back our pride as Catholics. Now we can celebrate who we are as the Church with our Holy Father."

A high point for everyone came when the Holy Father entered the stadium in the Popemobile. The entire crowd was on its feet to welcome him, erupting in applause and waving yellow and white handkerchiefs (signifying the colors of the papal flag), provided by the organizers. The whole stadium became one gigantic sea of yellow and white waving in greeting to the Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ, who was now in their midst.

Whenever the applause died down, some of the faithful would take up the cry, "Viva il Papa!" Or: "We love the Pope!"

The Holy Father himself had to wait patiently until the applause ceased to begin Mass.

In commenting the day after attending the papal Mass, Fr. Kazimierz Chwalek, MIC, the Marians' Director of Evangelization and Development, said, "You could feel the darkness [caused by the scandal] lift. People were proud to be Catholic, and they expressed it."

Unity in Diversity that Is Christ-Centered and Apostolic

The Holy Father began his homily by stressing the visible unity of the Church present at the liturgy, saying, "The presence around this altar of the Successor of Peter, his brother bishops and priests, and deacons, men and women religious, and lay faithful from throughout the 50 states of the Union, eloquently manifests our communion in the Catholic faith which comes to us from the Apostles."

The Pontiff celebrated the ways in which the Church in America "has united a widely diverse flock in the profession of faith and, through her many educational, charitable, and social works, has also contributed significantly to the growth of American society as a whole."

He said the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-7) shows us how the Church had to weather "linguistic and cultural tensions already present within the earliest Church community." The Pope continued, "At the same time, it shows the power of the word of God, authoritatively proclaimed by the Apostles and received in faith, to create a unity which transcends the divisions arising from human limitations and weakness."

The Vicar of Christ in our midst then underscored the "fundamental truth" that "the Church's unity has no other basis than the Word of God, made flesh in Christ Jesus our Lord. All external signs of identity, all structures, associations, and programs, valuable or even essential as they may be, ultimately exist only to support and foster the deeper unity which, in Christ, is God's indefectible gift to His Church."

The Successor to St. Peter the Apostle went on to say, "The first reading also makes clear, as we see from the imposition of hands on the first deacons, that the Church's unity is 'apostolic.' It is a visible unity, grounded in the Apostles whom Christ chose and appointed as witnesses to His resurrection, and it is born of what the Scriptures call 'the obedience of faith'" (Rom 1:5; see Acts 6:7).

What Is 'Real Freedom'?

These words "the obedience of faith" led naturally into a discussion of "real freedom" by Pope Benedict with his American flock. "Authority. ... Obedience," he reflected. "To be frank, these are not easy words to speak nowadays. Words like these represent a 'stumbling stone' for many of our contemporaries, especially in a society which rightly places a high value on personal freedom."

Then he described how "in the light of our faith in Jesus Christ — 'the way and the truth and the life' — we come to see the fullest meaning, value, and indeed beauty of [the obedience of faith]." The Lord Jesus in the Gospel teaches us "that true freedom, the freedom of the children of God, is found only in the self-surrender which is part of the mystery of love. Only by losing ourselves, the Lord tells us, do we truly find ourselves" (see Lk 17:33). This "true freedom blossoms," he said, "when we turn away from the burden of sin, which clouds our perceptions and weakens our resolve, and find the source of our ultimate happiness in Him who is infinite love."

In the shining light of this call to conversion — to be conformed to the image of Christ — the Pope explained the nature of "real freedom":

Real freedom, then, is God's gracious gift, the fruit of conversion to His truth which makes us free (see Jn 8:32). And this freedom in truth brings in its wake a new and liberating way of seeing reality. When we put on "the mind of Christ: (see Phil 2:5), new horizons open before us! In the light of faith, within the communion of the Church, we also find the inspiration and strength to become a leaven of the Gospel in the world. We become the light of the world, the salt of the earth (see Mt 5:13-14), entrusted with the "apostolate" of making our own lives, and the word in which we live, conform every more fully to God's saving plan.

The Holy Father then described the American context for living out this "real freedom." Speaking of the history of the Church in America and the freedoms we enjoy, he said, "In this land of religious liberty, Catholics found freedom not only to practice their faith, but also to participate fully in civic life, bringing their deepest moral convictions to the public square and cooperating with their neighbors in shaping a vibrant, democratic society." In this context, the Pope summoned his American flock "to use wisely the blessings of freedom, in order to build a future of hope for coming generations."

Advancing the Kingdom, Meeting the Challenges
How exactly do we go about this task as American Catholics?

The Holy Father said that we should start by focusing on God's kingdom, not our own concerns. "Each day, throughout this land, you and so many of your neighbors pray to the Father in the Lord's own words: 'Thy Kingdom come,'" he said. "This prayer needs to shape the mind and heart of every Christian in this nation. ... It needs to create new 'settings of hope' (see Spe Salvi, 32ff.) where God's Kingdom becomes present in all its saving power."

As we pray "fervently for the coming of the Kingdom," Pope Benedict said that we should face "the challenges of the present and future with confidence in Christ's victory and a commitment to extending His reign." Specifically, this means "not losing heart in the face of resistance, adversity, and scandal. It means overcoming every separation between faith and life, and countering false gospels of freedom and happiness. It also means rejecting a false dichotomy between faith and political life."

In placing these challenges before his American flock, the Holy Father praised the Catholic community in America for having been "outstanding in its prophetic witness in the defense of life, in the education of the young, in care for the poor, the sick, and the stranger in your midst." He summed up, "On these solid foundations, the future of the Church in America must even now begin to rise!"

Interestingly, when the Pope mentioned America's "prophetic witness in the defense of life," many of the faithful applauded.

This reporter found Pope Benedict's comments about the challenges we face as Americans very timely, since our democratic process calls us to responsible citizenship — to address issues of common concern with the Gospel's teachings as signs of justice and peace for all. The hope and prayer is that Catholics participating at the Mass and viewing it at home had these vital principles in mind as they reflected on the Pope's homily.

May we put on "the mind of Christ" as we participate regularly in the spiritual and civic life of our nation. This would make the Holy Father rightly proud of his American flock.

David Came is executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass.

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