Anguish and Hope

Friday, April 18, 2008

WITH A MOVING message of hope and healing during his historic visit to this city, Pope Benedict XVI opted to speak not only to the Catholics who claim him as their spiritual leader. He spoke to all Americans. His words were a positive reminder of our national character and its potential to do great good; they should serve as a challenge that we hope will outlast the memories of his visit.

The sun-kissed stands of the new Nationals Park provided a glorious setting for yesterday's open-air Mass. It was the first opportunity for many Americans to get an up-close look at the man seen as sterner and more guarded than his popular predecessor, John Paul II. Contrary to the expectations of some, Pope Benedict did not scold. He sought to inspire: "Americans have always been a people of hope: Your ancestors came to this country with the expectation of finding new freedom and opportunity . . . [of] building a new nation on new foundations." No doubt the church sees challenges in a culture becoming increasingly secular and materialistic. But, the pope said, America remains a place of hope for people everywhere, and he preached trust in the power of grace to build "an ever more just and free world."

His message was made all the stronger by his acknowledgments of failures. No recounting of the American story is complete without mention of the injustices done to Native Americans or to those brought here as slaves. The pope reserved some of his harshest words for the church's own failings in dealing with pedophile priests who victimized thousands of children entrusted to the church's care. "No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse," he told his standing-room-only congregation. To place the scandal, as the pope did earlier, in the context of a loosening of standards overall in society is to understate what are, plain and simple, despicable crimes. But in the first visit of a pope to this country since the scandal broke six years ago, Benedict spoke of the matter three times, and, in a surprise move yesterday afternoon, he met with people who had been abused. His anguish reflected an understanding of the seriousness of the offense.

We were glad to hear the pope make a special appeal to American church leaders to "renew" their commitment to Catholic schools, particularly those in poorer areas. But perhaps the most heartening aspect of the pope's visit to the region, which concludes today as he departs for New York, is the effect it had on Washington, a city widely viewed as cynical if not faithless. The excitement -- manifested by crowds clamoring for tickets to the Mass or, at the very least, a view of the cleric in the Popemobile -- extended beyond the celebrity and the pageantry to respect for a man of unwavering belief.

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