Pope Benedict XVI and President George W. Bush. Wikimedia Commons

The Pope Showed America the Face of Christ

On the Pontiff’s return from the United States, we asked Archbishop Dominique Mamberti to provide an assessment of the visit. He accepted, explaining why the Successor of Peter “embodies the message that he brings: Christ is our hope”.
Davide Perillo

Presenting Benedict XVI’s American journey Tracce (the Italian edition of Traces) wrote: “It will be an opportunity to speak to the whole world about life, freedom, and rights denied. But, above all, to affirm a Presence.” This is just what happened. In those days, busy with meetings and discussions, historic speeches–like the address to the General Assembly of the United Nations–and stark sermons, moving encounters and applauding crowds, the summons to “Christ Our Hope” was much more than the title chosen for the visit. The Pope’s presence “succeeded in showing the true face of Jesus,” explains Archbishop Dominique Mamberti. Mamberti (56) was born in Morocco of French parents. He was formerly Papal Nuncio in Sudan and Eritrea, among other countries, and in September 2006 was made Secretary for Relations with States– in practice, the Holy See’s “Foreign Minister.” Upon the Pope’s return from the United States, the Archbishop agreed to answer questions sent to him by Traces, a sign of a concern and openness for which we are grateful.

The general impression–confirmed by the reactions of the international media–is that the journey was truly a fundamental achievement of the Pontificate. What is your personal evaluation? Do you feel an assessment is possible?
The journey was clearly an important moment in the Pontificate of Benedict XVI. Among other things, it coincided with the third anniversary of his election. The international travels of the Holy Fathers, starting with Paul VI and then especially with John Paul II, have become effective and timely instruments for the exercise of the Petrine ministry, in the service of evangelization and the ecclesial community. Every word of the Pope, then, is missionary in the sense that it always bears witness to all of humanity of God’s “unprecedented” love for mankind (see Deus Caritas Est, no. 12). This love is embodied in the face of His Son made man and we respond to it by seeking a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, where everyone is included and all human reality gains in fullness of significance.

In the life of the Church in the United States, we can truly say the journey has been a fundamental achievement. As many American bishops have already pointed out, it was a moment of intense spirituality for the whole Church; I would say, in the most pregnant sense, an effusion of the Holy Spirit. Benedict XVI, with his mild presence and his smiling, kindly manner, succeeded in showing the face of Jesus and invited the Church in the United States to find its own true face. It was an injection of identity and courage, which restored the pride of Catholics in belonging to the Catholic, papal, and Roman Church, and renewed their commitment to the service of their fellow-citizens and the whole world, especially those who have no voice or who are left most alone.

Then we need to stress the relationship which the Pope succeeded in establishing with the media and, through them, with the American people in general (Protestants, Jews, and members of other religions). In a civilization that favors communication by images, the Holy Father received unprecedented media coverage, 24 hours of every day, all through his stay. His gestures and words were quoted repeatedly and carried to every corner of the United States. They helped to efface old suspicions and prejudices about the Catholic Church, the fruit of distinctive cultural and historical factors. I would particularly emphasize his gestures and speeches when he spoke of the grievous scandal of pedophile priests, which found such a strong echo in people’s hearts. He helped decisively to heal the wounds still open and to start a new season for the Church in the United States. Everyone could see the Successor of Peter as a point of union and convergence for all Christians–a center of communion, we might say– not a distant monarch nor a severe custodian of dogma and discipline, which are unknown and unintelligible to many. He appeared as a priest and a humble and compassionate shepherd, embodying in his person the message he brought: Christ is our life and our hope.

In “political” terms, too, we can say that the visit was of the utmost importance, since the Holy Father had a privileged opportunity to confirm to the world, especially in his address to the United Nations, his message on true human reason, capable of opening itself to the transcendent and finding in that transcendence the guiding principles of all its work.

Returning to the concepts already expressed by the Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Father Federico Lombardi, we can sum it up by saying that the Holy Father privileged the announcement of hope. The announcement of hope to a great nation, which must show itself equal to its special vocation in the world today; the announcement of hope, a Church that has lived through an especially troubled period in recent years; the announcement of hope to all the peoples of the world, represented by the United Nations, showing that serving the dignity of man is the solid foundation on which to build the future.

Another decisive theme was freedom. “In its name,” said Benedict XVI, “there has to be a correlation between rights and duties, by which every person is called to assume responsibility for his or her choices, made as a consequence of entering into relations with others.” Could you explain more fully this “correlation between rights and duties in the name of freedom?”
In his speech, the Pope himself explains the correlation between rights and duties. It is a “consequence of entering into relations with others” (para. 3). In fact, no one is responsible for his own existence, no one exists alone, no one exists for himself. Every assertion of a right, starting from the right to life, entails two duties: the duty for everyone else to respect this right of the subject and the obligation of the subject to respect that of all others. Without this last, the subject risks claiming a position of superiority for himself, which could lead to an assertion of the legitimacy of brute force. The responsibility to respect and foster other people’s rights is due to the “common origin of the person, who remains the high-point of God’s creative design for the world and for history” (para. 7). The possibility of drafting a list of rights and duties springs from the dignity of the human person and rests on the universal sense of justice, based in its turn “primarily upon solidarity among the members of society.” It follows that such rights and duties are valid always and everywhere, namely for all time and all peoples, an insight which, as the Pope recalled, “was expressed as early as the fifth century by Augustine of Hippo, one of the masters of our intellectual heritage. He taught that the saying: Do not do to others what you would not want done to you ‘cannot in any way vary according to the different understandings that have arisen in the world.’”

On the same topic, the Pope returned frequently to the theme of religious freedom as the decisive form of freedom, capable in a certain sense of embracing all the others. Why this insistence? And what value does it have in a context in which religions are often supposed to be irrelevant to our life in society, which ought to be secular, or are actually seen as obstacles rather than aids to human development?
Protecting and fostering religious freedom has always been at the center of the pontiff’s concerns, especially when dealing with public authorities. This is a constant that runs right through the whole history of the Church. It is one of the reasons and justifications for the international activity of the Holy See.

Man is a creature of God, made in His image and likeness and intended for eternal communion with Him. This means there is a sphere of the human person which expresses his transcendence and cannot be subordinated to the arbitrary will of the authorities or shaped by political and social interests, however good or useful they may seem. The failure to recognize this sphere or protect it in all its dimensions–including the right of the individual to embrace a religion, practice it, and change it, and the right of both individuals and religious communities to express their religious convictions and give their contribution for the common good–amounts to denying the transcendence of the human person. History bears very full testimony to the importance of the contribution given by believers to the common good and human development.

The criticism of relativism and the constant appeal to the truth as the foundation of freedom (as in the speech to young people and seminarians) definitely contradicts the conventional wisdom, which sees the search for the truth as a factor of conflict. Why is it that without the effort to attain the truth there is no chance of a fully human coexistence between peoples?
True, some intellectual circles, particularly in Europe, identify the search for the truth, especially in religion, as a source of conflict. This idea, which is not new, is often taken up and amplified by the media. But if people are roused by a message that touches their hearts, they respond positively to the call to seek the truth. One proof of this is the welcome the Holy Father received from the crowds in the United States. So it does not seem to me wholly correct to affirm that relativism is a dominant current. The facts show that when strong values and firm convictions are offered to people, they react enthusiastically.

In relativism and its rejection of the quest for the truth, we can find the desire for a Promethean affirmation of man. But, as Benedict XVI pointed out in his speech, “Refusal to recognize the contribution to society that is rooted in the religious dimension and in the quest for the Absolute–by its nature, expressing communion between persons–would effectively privilege an individualistic approach, and would fragment the unity of the person.”

Another striking point was the call to justice which cannot be reduced to legality and to a politics which cannot be mere pragmatism. The Pope said: “When faced with new and insistent challenges, it is a mistake to fall back on a pragmatic approach, limited to determining ‘common ground,’ minimal in content and weak in its effect.” What challenge does a vision of this kind raise in relations between the States? And what is the Church’s role in this respect? The Holy Father spoke of a Church “experienced in humanity” and ready to place this experience at the disposal of all members of the international community…
In part, I have already dealt with this point. What is true of individuals is also true of social subjects and states. There are no rights without a responsibility to respect and foster other people’s rights. So John Paul II, in his speech to the UN in October 1995, spoke of the family of nations, and Benedict XVI returned to this concept in the opening of his address. The family’s members are all called on to act for the good of others, to share everything. The affections that bind them mean that respect for rights comes naturally and justice is continually perfected by love, especially in an active commitment toward the weakest and most needy.

Of course, only a transcendental vision of man and faith in the Lord God of history can lay solid foundations for a social organization that seeks to be truly the expression of the family of peoples. This is the fundamental “experience of humanity” that the Holy See, as the Holy Father confirmed in his speech, seeks to place at the disposal of men and peoples. After interpreting his presence at the UN as a sign of respect for the organization and expressing the hope that it would contribute to the unity between States and place itself at the service of the whole human family, he observed: “It also demonstrates the willingness of the Catholic Church to offer her proper contribution to building international relations in a way that allows every person and every people to feel they can make a difference. In a manner that is consistent with her contribution in the ethical and moral sphere and the free activity of her faithful… The United Nations remains a privileged setting in which the Church is committed to contributing her experience ‘of humanity,’ developed over the centuries among peoples of every race and culture, and placing it at the disposal of all members of the international community. This experience and activity, directed towards attaining freedom for every believer, seeks also to increase the protection given to the rights of the person… In my recent encyclical, Spe Salvi, I indicated that ‘every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs’ (no. 25). For Christians, this task is motivated by the hope drawn from the saving work of Jesus Christ. That is why the Church is happy to be associated with the activity of this distinguished Organization, charged with the responsibility of promoting peace and good will throughout the earth.”