Pope Benedict first day in US

The Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey)
April 17, 2008 Thursday
Pope, in D.C., begins campaign of renewalBenedict warns of secularism in a `land of great faith’ and implores bishops to speak out



LENGTH: 1765 words


In twin addresses on his first full day in the United States, Pope Benedict XVI offered a mixed message to the nation yesterday, lavishing praise on Americans for their generosity and deep faith but warning that rising secularism, moral decay and a culture of personal fulfillment threaten to undermine society.

The more sobering of Benedict’s speeches followed a pageantry-filled ceremony attended by more than 9,000 people on the South Lawn of the White House. Waving small Vatican flags, the jubilant crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to the pope, who turned 81 yesterday. Benedict, in response, raised his hands in the air and called out, “God bless America,” drawing sustained cheers.

“I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society,” the pontiff said, praising the United States as a land of “shared ideals and aspirations.”

President Bush greeted the pope warmly, telling him he would find a nation of prayer and compassion, one that welcomes Benedict’s stated mission to spark a “renewal” of the church in America.

It was the first papal visit to the White House in 29 years – former President Jimmy Carter hosted John Paul II in 1979 – and just the second in history.

Benedict later met privately with Bush. He departed the White House in the popemobile, waving to thousands of people gathered along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Late yesterday afternoon, Benedict traveled again by popemobile to the soaring National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the nation’s largest Roman Catholic church, to deliver a lengthy and frank address that touched on major concerns he has expressed throughout his 3-year-old papacy, from the decline of the family to ever-greater materialism to the “scandal” of Catholics who “promote an alleged right to abortion.”

The speech, the second of 11 addresses the pope will give during his six-day visit to Washington and New York, also returned to the topic of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, for which Benedict said he was “deeply ashamed” during his flight from Rome on Tuesday.

Speaking to the nation’s bishops, cardinals and thousands of other guests in the grand basilica, the pope acknowledged the crisis had been “sometimes very badly handled,” an apparent reference to the cover-ups in which ranking church members shielded pedophile priests from prosecution over several decades, allowing them to molest again.

“Now that the scale and gravity of the problem is more clearly understood, you have been able to adopt more focused remedial and disciplinary measures and to promote a safe environment that gives greater protection to young people,” Benedict told the bishops.

The pope broadened the idea, however, saying young people also need to be protected from the “degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today.”

“What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?” the pontiff asked. “We need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society, so that a sound moral formation can be offered to young people and adults alike. All have a part to play in this task – not only parents, religious leaders, teachers and catechists, but the media and entertainment industries as well.”

The pope lamented the decline in the family structure, with rising divorce rates, fewer marriages and a greater willingness among unwed couples to live together.

Equally dangerous, he said, is an increase in secularism. Americans in particular, he said, tend to separate their faith from their everyday lives, picking and choosing when to abide by Christian principles.

“Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs?” Benedict asked. “Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching, or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?”

The pope took an equally dim view of the idea that wealth and material goods lead to fulfillment, calling it an “illusion.”

“Without God, who alone bestows upon us what we by ourselves cannot attain, our lives are ultimately empty,” Benedict said.

He called on the bishops to take an active role in shaping the religious lives of the nation’s 65 million Catholics, from expanding religious education to speaking out more forcefully on issues important to the church.

“In a context where free speech is valued, and where vigorous and honest debate is encouraged, yours is a respected voice that has much to offer to the discussion of the pressing social and moral questions of the day,” he told the gathering.

Despite the weighty topics raised by the pope, Benedict expressed admiration for Americans, calling the United States a “land of great faith” and its people “remarkable for their religious fervor.”

The pope touched on that same theme earlier at the White House, where he spoke of faith as a constant through American history, from the republic’s founding through the civil rights movement.

Benedict and the president seemed at ease with one another, and despite their differences on the war in Iraq, they share much in common.

In a joint statement issued after their private meeting, they said they discussed aid to developing nations, the “defense and promotion of life,” and the rejection of terrorism.

The statement said the two also discussed Iraq and the prospects for Middle East peace – two topics Benedict is certain to raise when he speaks at the United Nations tomorrow.

First, however, the pontiff has another full day in Washington. This morning, he will preside over a Mass for more than 40,000 people at Nationals Park, followed by what is expected to be another major address to the presidents of the nation’s Catholic universities.

The pope is scheduled to end his day by meeting with leaders of other faiths. He arrives in New York tomorrow morning.

Staff writers Jeff Diamant in Newark and Peggy McGlone in Washington contributed to this report.

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