The Roman Catholics of this area of the United States and, represented by us, all of the Catholics of the Americas, are making ready to welcome the visit of Pope Benedict XVI during April.
In the person of the Pope, we Catholics are not simply receiving a Chief of State, and much less still, simply a great writer or famous personality. We Roman Catholics receive the Pope with enormous gratitude and are joyful at his visit and physical presence among us, because he is, above all, the successor of Peter, the first of the Apostles in the Church and the one who is for us the confirmation of truth and unity. In other words, we Catholics see the Pope’s visit to our particular churches as an event that should strengthen our faith and encourage our hope.
A large part of today’s Catholic world knew Pope John Paul II, thanks to his long time at the head of the Church. We knew him in the early days and latter years of his mission, as well as during his times of strength and frailty. John Paul II was seen and heard, followed and loved, but he was not always obeyed. Benedict XVI is another man altogether and – according to an old adage – “the style is the man”. The current Pope, the one that will be visiting us, is a German priest, an intellectual, a recognized thinker of our times and circumstances from the viewpoint of Christian theology, in his role as a great academic, professor and prolific writer.
And Benedict XVI comes to us in a space and time conditioned and characterized by difficult circumstances, not only in terms of what is happening in the United States, but also in the history of the entire American Continent and the world as a whole.
In effect, and at an internal level in this Nation, we are going through a worrisome and evident time of economic “recession” or of “deceleration” (the terminology or technicalities are immaterial, in the end, when the pocketbooks and needs of the poor are at stake), with all that this signifies: fewer job opportunities and, with this, less access to personal and social welfare – e.g., to more highly qualified training, better housing, better health care, and so on. It is a difficult time, above all, because it gravely and scandalously reveals the huge gaps and inequalities that are prevalent in North American society, where a handful of people have a super abundance of wealth, while millions survive a situation of injustice for anyone living in the world’s most powerful Nation, and a situation too that is unworthy and inhuman for any among the children of God.
We find ourselves currently immersed in an electoral battle for the presidency of this Nation. In a Nation in which, from a social and governmental standpoint, the stakes surround issues that are indeed major and pressing, topics of the delicacy and controversial nature of war and peace, the rights of the unborn, U.S. foreign policy, public sexual morals, immigration reform and with it, the rights of those who have magnified this country’s economic greatness with their work, sweat, abnegation and sacrifice, only to then be abused, exploited, mistreated and persecuted. And this is a treatment of immigrants that is clearly at odds with the image of the United States in the eyes of the world as the safe harbor and oasis of freedom, of democracy and of respect for civil rights and the dignity of the human race.
And as if all of this were not enough, we also find ourselves immersed in warfare being waged in different parts of the world, and especially in Iraq. This is a war that comes with great losses of human life, with unjust and unjustifiable spending on arms, with the destruction of what was once the land of the Old Testament and that signifies a huge step backward in age-old progress and development in the humanization and civilization of Mankind.
The climate in the heart of the Catholic Church in this Nation is hardly alien to the social crisis. We carry with us the still fresh wounds of recent scandals involving sexual abuse, and in which ordained ministers of the Church have been implicated. Worrisome too is the ever-lower number of those confessing a vocation for life as priests or nuns and the constant challenge of building the Church in the midst of such diversity between that which is “national” and “immigrant”, “Catholic” and “ecumenical”. The fact is that universal unity is enriching, precisely because of its ethnic, social and cultural diversity. And this diversity has identifiable faces: namely, the more than 45 million Spanish-speaking men and women who inhabit this Nation (the immense majority of them Catholic in terms of their roots and identity), not counting growing waves of immigration from Europe, Asia and Africa. All of this signifies that, currently, over a quarter of the entire population of the United States of America is made up of immigrants.
These and other changing circumstances and concerns form the political, economic, social, cultural and ecclesiastical context of our times. And they constitute our current challenge, as well as our historical responsibility.
Within the framework of this reality, Benedict XVI faces a challenge of his own, since we men and women of good faith, Catholics or not, who inhabit the length and breadth of this Nation, conditioned by these and other circumstances, eagerly await his message, the light of the Gospel, the coming true of the prophecy of Isaiah: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” And in this way, the religious and Christian experience, as lived in the bossom of the Roman Catholic Church, stands to become an ever more possible, amiable, credible, hopeful and saving life experience.