The incomparable Peggy Noonan wrote a piece in today’s New York Post about Pope Benedict’s visit to New York.
You knew he had arrived by the cheer that welled up from the street. It was electric. Suddenly inside the cathedral, where 3,000 people were waiting, it turned quiet and everyone turned. And now the great huge doors of St. Patrick’s opened and sunlight poured in, crashed down, and there was the pope, and the crowd – nuns and religious, deacons and priests, meaning a lot of people who actually deserved to be there – sent a wave of applause crashing against the old Gothic dome.
He reacted the way we now know Benedict does. Modest, meek, surprised by love, and then gamely, nodding, throwing his arms wide. You should have seen the nuns, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, Mother Agnes’ Sisters of Life, from Yonkers, dozens of other orders. As he passed down the center aisle, they would reach out, rows of arms in robes reaching toward him.
It was beautiful. If you didn’t get choked up, you weren’t alive.
What a hit, what a trip, what a triumph. And it was something else, too. In the past week, in a wholly new way, Pope Benedict XVI became the leader of the Catholics of America. He broke through as his own man, put forward his own meaning, put his stamp on this moment in time. Americans know him now, and seem to have judged him to be what a worldly journalist said in the cathedral as he gazed at the crowd. His eyes went to Benedict on the altar, and he gestured toward him. “He’s a good guy,” he said, softly.
There was the priest I talked to, sitting quietly, waiting for Mass to begin. I asked if he felt he knew anything about Benedict now that he hadn’t known before. Yes, he said. “He has his own charisma.” He spoke of John Paul, the heavenly rock star, and said he’d felt concern that Benedict wouldn’t seem to compare. But, he said, Benedict has his own magnetism. “It’s the charisma of sincerity,” he said. “It’s sincerity and realness.”
At the end of the Mass, I asked an usher, geared up in white tie and black tails, what he felt during the Mass. “Joy and exultation,” he said. “The bishops were his biggest cheerleaders – and he’d just told them to get their act together!”
He was referring, of course, to what the pope did regarding what American Catholics now call, simply, The Scandal. What he did was unprecedented, historic, but also a gift. In the past, the church has been defensive about the sexual-abuse scandals, or dismissive, or full of carefully worded semi-denials. That’s over. The page has been turned. In Shepherd One, on the way to Washington from Rome, Benedict called the scandal a “shame.” In almost every stop he addressed it, took responsibility, said, in essence, never again. He charged the bishops to work hard, to move strongly. At St. Patrick’s: The scandal “caused so much suffering”; this church, like so many elements and institutions in society, needs “purification.”
Most moving, of course, was the meeting, in Washington, with five of those who had been abused, who had told their stories, who had previously not been listened to. Now he was holding their hands, individually, and hearing them. It seemed to me a mirror of John Paul’s historic meeting, 25 years ago, with Mehmet Ali Agca. The two of them talked and prayed, alone, in Agca’s cell. Agca had attempted to kill the pope; John Paul wanted to forgive him. Now here with Benedict in Washington, a church that had killed the innocence of some children asked for forgiveness.
All of this was in some ways confessional; it set a tone that might be called the new humility; it identified the church once again with the powerless and abused, and in doing so seemed to move the church back closer to what it was in its beginnings, a place of the humble and hunted.
But also, as I said, it was a gift. St. Patrick’s was packed with young priests and seminarians, each of whom had made a profoundly countercultural, and therefore courageous, decision to enter a profession, if you will, that has been derided and even scorned among some Americans for a decade now. They have needed and deserved a sign from the top that the shame would be recognized and halted. That’s the gift Benedict gave them. “No one knew what to expect [of Benedict] – an old man, a filler,” said 22-year-old Christopher Ehrich, in his fourth year at St. John’s Seminary. “But he’s so thoughtful, and he met with the sexual-abuse victims. They thought he’d be heavy-handed, but he’s gentle and open and honest.
“I hope this is the beginning of a new era,” he said.
Did anything not work? Yes. The increased and, at this point, almost hysterical level of security that now surrounds such events. Security keeps people away. It leaves the pope unable to walk on a street. There is more muscle in all this than there seems effectiveness, shrewdness or humanity. People who waited hours for the pope couldn’t see him for all the security around him. Journalists whose faces and biographies are well known to the police are rounded up in holding rooms while K-9 dogs sniff bags. In some way that can’t be quantified, this is demoralizing for our society.
Enough already. Life involves risk. Presidents and popes are not Caesar. In fact, the point of presidents and popes is that they are not Caesar. Limit the Praetorian Guards with their blue suits and earpieces.
At the end of the St. Patrick’s Mass, the pope, impromptu, spoke of St. Peter falling, failing, and yet being, becoming, the rock on which the church had been built. He seemed to be saying he was similarly frail and full of fault. He seemed to be saying we all are. And yet we must take up our work. “Never forget that you are called to carry on with joy and enthusiasm,” he said.
And at this, there was another wave of applause that rolled through the cathedral and did not want to end. And then the cheer. “Ben-e-DEE-to,” “Ben-e-DEE-to,” chanted the seminarians of St. Joseph’s in Yonkers. And the chant spread. For now they know him in America, and now he has a nickname.
This is the kind of story that gives hope to us all, isn’t it? I feel like the Pope’s visit has closed a door on an era of the Church and we have started a new one.