Pope in U.S.
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Issue Date:  April 4, 2008

Nancy A. Dallavalle
Facing east: In anticipation of Benedict's visit


A month ago, prompted by the latest issue of the magazine Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education, I arranged a panel discussion that offered reflections on the bodily dimension of campus life at our Jesuit university. An art history professor on the panel spoke of the humanizing power of the aesthetic. The men’s basketball coach described his recruiting pitch, in which he invites high school seniors to a place that offers a particular formation for becoming a man. A Jesuit administrator invoked the beauty of our campus. A theater student told of her involvement in a project for feminist awareness. And one young woman shared her experience as a leader of student eucharistic ministers, asking if we might want to consider kneeling during the eucharistic prayer, to live in our bodies the reverence to which we are called.

Meeting with a Catholic women’s group a few evenings later, one woman commented on the rumors of liturgical retrenchment -- the calls for more kneeling, the suggestion of the return to the reception of Communion on the tongue -- by drawing a wheel-and-spokes pattern in the air, saying, “Don’t you see, it’s always about them, they always want to have themselves at the center.” In her decades of observation, invitations to increased reverence were usually thinly disguised calls by clerics for increased clericalism. For her, word of Pope Benedict XVI’s appreciation for the tradition of having the celebrant “face east” during the liturgy, with his back to the congregation, simply confirmed her suspicion that the goal of these “retrievals” was that those who had long dismissed her would now no longer feel obligated even to attempt to establish eye contact.

Catholics in the United States are now facing east, to the arrival of Benedict in April. His visit will be an important event for U.S. Catholics, particularly those on the scene in Washington and New York. He will address several different audiences. Global eyes and ears will tune in to the speech at the United Nations and the visit to Ground Zero. His address to college and university presidents, on the other hand, will primarily be directed to the attendees, though it will be spun for maximum effect by those dedicated to keeping the culture wars alive. Liturgical celebrations will be scrutinized for “the signs of the times to come,” for example, the decision to call in hundreds of priests to distribute Communion at outdoor Masses, despite the fact that thousands of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are sure to be on hand. Throughout, what is said will matter, what is not said will matter just as much, and the pope knows he can only control the first.

In John Paul’s shadow

He cannot control the fact that he walks in the shadow of John Paul II. For the pope-watching public, Benedict’s quiet intensity plays in relief across the memory of his theater-savvy predecessor, whose command of the camera worked particularly well in the giant media marketplace of the United States. Although John Paul’s Polish sensibility was seen as having only a niche appeal near the beginning of his papacy, as the years went on his pastoral and humane presence was widely admired. In contrast, Benedict’s focus on Europe seems oddly parochial in a global church, until one understands that, for Benedict, “Europe” is not a static entity, but a narrative whose intellectual history and future are indelibly linked to the Christian message. European secularism, then, is not a matter of indifference to the sacred, but a competing -- and potentially catastrophic -- ideology.

So when he speaks to Catholic college presidents, of course he will call for a more direct statement of the religious identity of their institutions, an identity strongly grounded in the Western intellectual tradition. He will probably insist that the integration of faith and reason be a central formative principle for campus dialogue. Whatever he says, one can be certain that his nuanced presentation will be quickly proclaimed by the blogging right as “courageous” and “countercultural,” and then reduced to the most trivial of bumper stickers: No Talking Vaginas! More Catechism!

Sound bites aside, Catholics do face a serious question as to whether the culture of Catholicism will actually be transmitted to the next generation. So, while only a fraction of Catholics attend Catholic colleges and universities, the chance to have this significant minority engage in a substantive way with the Catholic intellectual tradition is an opportunity that must not be squandered. But the symbolism of this meeting is probably more important than the substance, as this call for deeper engagement has been already sounded clearly in Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Less confrontational

Indeed, if Benedict has seemed, thus far, to be less confrontational than John Paul II, perhaps this is because he doesn’t make headlines about sex. To be sure, Benedict opposes the ordination of women. But he doesn’t need to talk about this, having given the ban quasi-dogmatic status in his previous position as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Nor does he make a great point of sexual complementarity, the male-female duality that so captured the theological imagination of John Paul II.

Deus Caritas Est, Benedict’s first encyclical, delivers a meditation on the origins and theological grounding of marriage as monogamous and indissoluble. Yet while he explicitly focuses on love as “love between man and woman,” it seems significant that he does not make the further move, invoking his predecessor’s understanding of sexual difference as love’s theological wellspring. Abortion does not seem to top his agenda, nor does he wax fulsomely about the glories of the family as the domestic church.

Similarly, his quasi-restorationist inclinations with regard to the liturgy are, it seems to this theologian, animated not by nostalgia but rather by his somewhat cerebral sense that the liturgy is the “public work” of the church, rather than an expression of the gathered community. But the fact is that any changes to the liturgy will be received by the laity through the filter of the parish priest, shaped by the local bishop. And here it is not yet Benedict’s, but John Paul’s stamp that remains in force: the devotional sensibility of John Paul, which was a strong factor in his selection of bishops, will dominate the formation of priests and religious for some time to come.

Mass at summer camp

Consider this. I recently picked up a “vocations” brochure inviting high school boys and girls to (separate) summer camp sessions. While recreation and sports are mentioned, the first activities listed are Holy Mass, rosary and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The cover photo features a host on display in a monstrance flanked by candles. The brochure opens to a formal picture of the local ordinary. The entire pitch seems to be designed both to appeal to a small segment of the self-consciously devout and to weed out most Catholic 16-year-olds. It is certainly appropriate to narrow the search for teens with religious vocations to the ranks of high school students who regularly attend Sunday Mass. But for many of these teens, their experience of the Eucharist is more likely to be animated by social justice concerns and sharing with peers than by the regular practice of traditional Catholic devotions. While such an embrace of charity and community is a terrific formation for the priesthood and religious life, one glance at this brochure would convince most Catholic teens that they are not the type sought by this diocese.

I suspect that Benedict could offer us a somewhat different vocational model, one less devotional, more worldly, and -- dare we say it? -- intellectual. It is hard to communicate his sensibility about the liturgy, particularly as it devolves into Catholic caricature once it hits the Eastern Seaboard, aided by assorted disgruntled left-wing holdouts and a veritable legion of right-wing sycophants, working in a kind of curious concert to keep genuine renewal at bay. Over this noise, it’s hard for the younger and older women I mention above to find and recognize their many prayerful commonalities. But these women do have something in common, something important, to which Benedict, in his address to the United Nations, might successfully appeal: a sense that Catholicism offers a sturdy framework for thinking about the entirety of human experience in community, and ordering it to the good.

This broader story should shape his words to U.S. Catholics. Whether in New York or Washington, Benedict is addressing a country that counts a majority of Catholics on the highest court, jurists who are certainly aware of the sophisticated Catholic tradition of faith and reason, and the ways in which it has and can set aside strictly faith-based arguments and serve to constructively inform public dialogue. This tradition presents a timely resource for reflection on civic life, offering a way through the logjam of American anti-intellectualism. For this young and pragmatic country, Benedict’s visit will be of genuine service, if he can present a pastoral, substantive and publicly compelling Catholic Christianity as a valuable mode of engagement with a globalized world.

Three years ago, while not overly surprised that the College of Cardinals chose Joseph Ratzinger, I was floored to hear that the former guardian of orthodoxy had chosen the name of Benedict, a name most strongly associated with the sixth-century monastic known for his wise and pastoral approach to community life. With other U.S. Catholics, I think I know generally what to expect from this visit, but with this pope, there is little I assume.

Nancy A. Dallavalle is an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2008

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