Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who will turn 91 on April 16, visited the United States 10 years ago, April 15-20, 2008.
I remember the occasion fondly. I was in my second year of teaching Spanish at my alma mater (Class of 2000), Bishop McNamara High School (“McNamara”), in Forestville, Maryland. Forestville is near Joint Base Andrews. Then-McNamara President Heather Gossart and Principal Marco Clark went to Andrews, along with musicians from McNamara’s band program, who played selections as Benedict arrived to meet with former President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. You can read more about the occasion in this Archdiocese of Washington’s Catholic Standard piece by Richard Szczepanowski: “Pope Benedict Arrives at Andrews to Begin First Pastoral Visit to U.S.”
Notably, this was the first time that a sitting American president went to Andrews in order to greet a visiting dignitary or head of state, rather than waiting for him or her at the White House.
The world was a “different place” in the spring of 2008. To be fair, this pat phrase could be said of any era. Yet, it is important to take the time to recognize what Benedict XVI accomplished during his nearly eight-year pontificate broadly, and during this American visit specifically.
The first part of Benedict’s visit was, of course, centered in Washington. On April 16 (Benedict’s 81st birthday), he delivered this speech at the White House to President Bush and those guests gathered. On April 17, he celebrated an outdoor Mass at the relatively newly built Nationals Stadium, having been formally greeted by Archbishop (now Cardinal) Donald Wuerl. I attended this Mass along with students and other chaperones from McNamara, and I will forever appreciate the opportunity to hear the wise words that he offered during his homily, to say nothing of the chance to witness the students’ excitement at attending the Eucharistic celebration offered by the successor of Saint Peter.
Thereafter, Benedict visited Catholic University in DC, followed by an interfaith meeting of hundreds at the nearby Pope John Paul II Cultural Center (now designated the Saint John Paul II National Shrine). Between April 18 and 20, Benedict spent time in New York City, and likewise made various “firsts”: the first visit of a sitting pope to a synagogue on American soil, and the first visit of a pope to Ground Zero after the jihadist terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Benedict’s apostolic visit to the United States culminated with a Mass in Yankees Stadium. Just as soon as he came, he was back in Rome.
As we reflect on Benedict’s visit 10 years ago, we give thanks that he continued to serve faithfully until his similarly historic resignation in 2013. It is refreshing to see Benedict’s continually collegial dynamic with Pope Francis, indicating the great respect – really, pastoral continuity – that the last two successors of Saint Peter enjoy. If you would like some inspiration, you can find here Benedict’s words offered to the Catholic Church in the United States, and to the rest of the world by extension, on April 15 and 16, 2008, as well as some video highlights published by the prelature of Opus Dei.
May Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI continue to enliven us with his intellectual zeal for the truth and humble piety.