Benedict XVI came out from behind the long, and for many, saintly shadow of John Paul II this week when he arrived in the United States. His visit instilled a sense of curiosity in millions and a deep outpouring of respect from his American flock. He gave the most contrite apology yet for the terrible sins of wayward clergy in the sexual abuse scandal that has been so costly to the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church and to the lives of those directly affected. It was the act of one who understands that being a leader often means dealing with uncomfortable issues and bringing healing to where it is needed.
His homilies and speeches on human rights, respect for the individual and the challenge of global warming transcend any single religion or nation. They are the common cause of decent men and women everywhere. Yet no other leader can speak with such a direct connection to so many people around the world. He is, in that respect, a universal leader. There are not many of those today.
The celebration of his arrival on the south lawn of the White House this week, with the incomparable soprano, Kathleen Battle, whose voice, accompanied by a golden harp, would move angels to tears, was a uniquely touching spectacle. And for all the criticism President George W. Bush has received for the mistakes and folly of his administration, though much of it is deserved, he was as gracious and considerate as one could ever expect from an American head of state.
Benedict’s attendance at New York’s Park East Synagogue on the start of the Jewish Sabbath before Passover shows this Pope, like his predecessor, to be a figure that respects other faiths and counsels tolerance for all. Many Muslims have also expressed admiration for the message the Pope has brought. These are encouraging steps in the journey toward hope and understanding on a road that is often shaken by violence and hatred.
It is a reminder that, even in a time when billionaire hedge fund managers and search engine kings command so much adulation and wars and economic disparity cause so much division in society, we all have a need to look up to someone who embodies a sense of moral authority and epitomizes the teachings of timeless virtues, such as faith, charity, forgiveness, care for the lesser among us and, especially, peace on earth.
History may well view Pope Benedict XVI’s visit this week as a turning point. John Paul II fills a special place in the Church and in the hearts of millions, some of whom did not even share his religion. But he would be the first to say that each Pope must serve in his time and find his own voice to do so. Benedict found his voice in America.
It is one that should be happily received around the world.