No, I am not a Catholic. But I am terribly excited that the Pope is visiting my country! I was glued to the T.V. this afternoon as Pope Benedict XVI stepped off the papal plane (“Shepherd One”) at Andrew’s Air force Base, setting foot in the U.S. for the first time since he assumed the papacy three years ago. The Pope was immediately greeted by President and Mrs. Bush (and Jenna, of all people), who awkwardly shook Benedict’s hand and followed him through an extensive receiving line. One wonders what eloquent small talk Dubya had up his sleeve with which to amuse the Holy Father…
In any case, I’m sure the Pope and Bush will have some interesting things to talk about during their extended visits over the next couple days. Benedict has criticized the decision to go to war in Iraq, though he reportedly does not want any swift drawdown of troops (for fear of the humanitarian repercussions… especially for Iraqi Christians). There will also undoubtedly be some discussion of immigration (after all, as Bush has said, Catholicism is the religion of the “newly arrived”), as well as the many issues upon which Bush and Benedict agree (pro-life issues, anti-relativism, etc).
I’m also interested to see how the Pope responds to the gaping wound of the American Catholic church: priest sex scandals. Before his plane even landed in America, Benedict was speaking about this issue to reporters, saying, “It’s difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way their mission to give healing, to give the love of God to these children. We are deeply ashamed, and we will do what is possible that this cannot happen in the future.”
One hopes that the Pope will be able to bring a new perspective and energy to the church in this country, galvanizing his flock to fortify the church for the 21st century. So far the Pope has not been able to reinvigorate the dying church in Europe, but perhaps—Lord willing—he can be more successful here.
It’s nice to be able to speak of the Pope in these terms—as an ally and role model in the faith. So often Protestants (and particularly those of the fundamentalist bent) view the Pope as either a cute anomaly in a funny costume, or a dangerous heretic leading many pagans (re: Catholics) astray. But even as I don’t necessarily agree with all his beliefs or venerate him as the supreme arbiter of Christian doctrine and truth (that is, the voice of God on Earth), I definitely respect him a deeply Godly man—someone who exemplifies, more than almost anyone in the public eye, what it means to devote one’s life to following Christ.
Amid the ongoing Catholic-Protestant disputes, we often lose sight of the fact that, in the end, both sides are followers of Christ. The historical events of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection gave rise to a thing called “the church,” a people called “Christians.” This is the rock upon which all else has been built. Theology has since shaped our various conceptions of how we are to live as Christians, but we can all agree on the core of what Christ means for the world: salvation.
I don’t want to make light of the differences—and there are some significant ones—between Protestant and Catholic theology (and between various Protestant denominations, for that matter). I just want to make a point that what the worldwide church (i.e. the 2.2 billion who claim Christ as savior) needs now is unity—a common cause and passion to respond to the world’s contemporary challenges with grace and love.
If the Pope’s visit to America results in 100,000 people converting to Catholicism (or re-discovering it), I’m not going to complain that those are 100,000 who might have become Presbyterians or Baptists. Rather, I will rejoice that here are 100,000 more potential saints to join the ranks of a worldwide, very-much-alive movement that–thanks be to God–shows no signs of fading into irrelevance anytime soon.