April 22, 2008

Michael Novak on Pope's U.S. Visit (Part 1), Interview With Theologian and Author

From Zenit.org, Washington, D.C., April 22, 2008

The United States gave a warm welcome to Benedict XVI when he arrived to the nation, and it must have been a little bit of a surprise for the Pope, says Michael Novak.

Novak is a theologian, former ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, and author of nearly 30 books, including the forthcoming "No One Sees God."

In part 1 of this interview with ZENIT, Novak discusses the Pope's reception in the United States, his comments on the sexual abuse crisis, and his address to Catholic educators.

Part 2 will appear Wednesday.

Q: What were your general impressions about the Pope's reception to the United States?

Novak: It must have surprised the Pope and his secretary and others what a tremendously warm welcome Washington and New York gave him.

You can know the Church in America abstractly, but when you compare it with other industrial nations, the people here are so religious that the churches are still full and the loyalty to the Holy See is very, very strong. 80% of Catholics in a Pew poll taken before Pope Benedict arrived said he was doing a good or a very good job. They approved him, they like him. I don't think it is like that in most of Europe.

I was at the arrival ceremony at the White House. The warmth of feeling for the Pope was tangible, and so was the good chemistry between the Pope and President George Bush. The warm feeling was very powerful. Both President and Pope looked very happy. I thought the Pope probably had never met an evangelical Protestant from Texas before, and I think he was getting a big kick out of it— the brashness, straightforwardness, and directness.

And then there is the manifest respect and love that President Bush has for the Pope. They are palpable.

President Bush has been grateful for the support of prayers from Catholics. He has done his best to soak up Catholic wisdom and Catholic ways of thinking about things. I don't think we are ever going to get a more Catholic president. Even the "Washington Post" said the other day that he is the "first Catholic president."

It seemed to me, though I don't see him everyday, that the Pope was overjoyed by the reception of the crowds. I wonder if Europeans expected this outpouring of love and affection from the people of America. People around the world portray Americans to be more secular, more detached, more modern, and perhaps more decadent. To the European mind, 'Modern' means 'secular.' But in the American case, that's false. Here, modern means religious, not secular.

Q: What did you think about the Pope's repeated mentioning of the abuse crisis that has plagued the Church in America?

Novak: The headline of the "Washington Times" on Monday, April 21, was "Pope visit soothes abuse crisis." Journalists are full of praise for the deft and serious way in which Benedict XVI expressed his shame, repentance and love regarding this issue.

At first, like many others, I was surprised that Benedict brought up the abuse crisis on the airplane. Then he brought it up in practically every venue thereafter.

The title of the Pope's pilgrimage was titled "Christ Our Hope," and he was calling us to renewal. For renewal to take effect, the right thing to do is begin with the confession of sin. I think it is true that we were all ashamed. I can't think of anything in my lifetime that shamed me more than the behavior of priests, almost always with young men.

Q: The Holy Father, with the heart of a teacher, addressed Catholic college and university presidents. What did you think of his address to them?

Novak: A Catholic college president judged the Pope's talk to be a very good mixture of the encouragement, "You are doing a lot of good," and of quiet, indirect accusation: "Look, you have to take the faith seriously." The Pope seemed to be saying: If you are a Catholic school, then your first task is to provide for all who live and study there an experience of the living God. You have to live up to what "Catholic" means.

The Pope has a quite wonderful teaching method. He speaks the harsh truth, and then turns you in a hopeful direction. Which really is the whole meaning of Christianity, to take evil and transform it into good.

The Pope used this method with the university presidents, saying roughly: "There are some bad things to call attention to, and we have to do better than that. Meanwhile, I want to encourage you and strengthen you because what you are doing— in your more than 200 Catholic universities— is unparalleled in the world, and you do so many things well. Be encouraged, be hopeful."


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