US Papal Visit - April 17, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI

My Personal Journal

Catholic University of America (CUA)

Washington, DC

By Rick Artman

President, Viterbo University

 

In my mail on Dec. 17, I found a "Dear Colleague" letter from President David O'Connell of the Catholic University of America (CUA).  His letter dated Dec. 12 was quite a surprise.  "His Holiness has asked to address the presidents of all the Catholic Universities and Colleges in the United States and one superintendent of Catholic schools or the equivalent official from every Catholic diocese in the country."  Fr. O'Connell's letter indicated more details would follow. I immediately blocked my calendar for April 17, 2008 - "Washington, D.C. - Pope visit."

Weeks later, at the February annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, President O'Connell outlined additional aspects of the papal invitation and visit:  no guests, no ring kissing, no flash photography, heavy security, registration required, make hotel reservations early and arrive well in advance of the appointed time.  Washington, D.C. hotels were well aware of their special guest from Rome and appropriately jacked up hotel prices for all the visitors coming to see Pope Benedict at various venues during his three days in the nation's capital.

Media coverage was non-stop when I arrived in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, April 16. My cab driver adeptly avoided the road closings along the papal route. People barriers were lined along the streets for the pilgrims and Washingtonians eager to catch a glimpse of the Pope or his pope mobile. I felt privileged that I would have a more unique vantage point to see the pontiff the next day.

I scheduled dinner, breakfast, and lunch with alumni in the area and enjoyed meeting several very successful Viterbo graduates, two attorneys and one Army Colonel (another School of Nursing success story).  Before walking a few blocks to the Metro station, I double checked that the invitation was in my suit coat jacket. The skies were clear, the sun shining, and the tulips and daffodils were wide open, soaking up the sun - as were hundreds of students at CUA who had gathered on the quad at the Catholic University of America. President O'Connell invited his campus community to celebrate the event and also extended an invitation to other college students in town to line the campus streets to welcome the pope. I smiled at the site of groups of students wearing black and white baseball tee shirts with a large #16 on the back, across the shoulders of each shirt was the player’s name - Benedict. These students were every bit as excited as were we Catholic educators. And in the American way, we were accosted by vendors selling Vatican flags, tee shirts, and other commemorative trinkets.

CUA hospitality was terrific - they must have some Franciscan heritage!  Students and staff escorted us around every corner and security examined our I.D. and invitations at numerous check points. Presidents of Catholic universities and colleges gathered in the Law School for light refreshments.  I often marvel at the number of students who walk our campus with elbows cocked and cell phones pressed to their heads.  It was evident that we presidents are every bit addicted - greetings and hugs accompanied the arrival of colleagues while others were busy tapping on their palm pilots and Blackberrys, or off in corners with cell phone over one ear and an index finger plugged in the other to drown out the conversations about the expected content and tone of Pope Benedict's address.

The media had speculated the Pope was coming to scold presidents for a diminishment of our Catholic identity, reigniting the controversies promulgated by the 1990 Apostolic Constitution "Ex corde Ecclesiae" and the subsequent debates about the mandatum for Catholic theologians.  A more thoughtful preview of the Pope's visit was noted in several articles in the April 11, 2008 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education in which informative sources anticipated the papal message would be affirming and encouraging.  I held no anxiety for a scolding.  I was confident that Viterbo University was firmly rooted in its Catholic identity, as are most of our sister and brother institutions in Catholic higher education.

The security check point was less intrusive than those commandeered by the TSA ,but uniformed guards and secret service agents with coiled wires behind their ears were prominent.  Reminiscent of my days in the Army, there seemed to be a lot of "hurry up and wait,” but we were a patient lot.  At a second registration desk we exchanged our mailed invitations for a new ticket with seat assignments. The room in the student union was perfectly sized for an intimate setting, chair placement permitted a clear view of the stage and podium for all. Red leather chairs would soon be filled with cardinals and bishops and the papal entourage.  Banners and a CUA choir set a festive tone and the number of cameras and media representatives reminded me this was indeed a big event. They reinforced the privilege of being present.

President O'Connell convened us an hour in advance of the Pope's arrival. The CUA president was genuinely joyful to have us on campus and showed no signs of the stress and huge expense for his institution (several million dollars we surmised - and classes were cancelled all week in preparation for the visit).  A campus camera monitored the campus entrance and beamed the images on huge screens on each side of the dais. At precisely 5 P.M., we saw the extended motorcade make its way to the entrance of the student center.  The choir began, probably a bit prematurely, because it was another 10 minutes before His Holiness entered the room to a thunderous round of applause.  I was told the room held about 600 people and the presidential count was about 175. It didn't seem as if anyone else was in the room - my eyes riveted on the man in white, his outstretched hands, his gracious smile, his holy countenance.

President O'Connell offered a warm welcome on our behalf and at 5:15 pm the Pontiff was handed his reading glasses and script, and he began his address.  Pin drop silence!  I strained to concentrate on his message, softly spoken and delivered with a strong German accent but clearly understandable.  I jotted notes for a forthcoming interview with our local media and it seemed only minutes, not 25, when Pope Benedict offered his conclusions. They felt personal.  He first offered his thanks for our selfless service and our generosity to Catholic education, reminding us that it has been the route from poverty for generations of immigrants.  He encouraged me and my colleagues in higher education to recognize the privilege we have to serve the Church and society.  His message made clear that our Catholic identity must be tangible and visible and that this is NOT measured by the number of Catholics enrolled or by audits of the contents of our courses, but by a commitment to our Catholic character.  He affirmed the importance of Catholic elementary and secondary schools, especially in the inner cities, and our responsibility to provide access for Catholics to be instructed in their faith, doctrine and practice.  And finally, he asked us to be witnesses of hope.

The concluding message certainly brought to mind the theme of our new strategic plan: The University of Opportunity: Hope and Help. The Holy Father's message likewise affirmed the importance of proclaiming the Catholic character of our institutions. Catholic and Franciscan identity is one of the four institutional priorities in our strategic plan.  Another priority in the plan is access and affordability, themes also mentioned in the address.  Hence, I felt encouragement and reinforcement that Viterbo is well aligned with the message.

Benedict was whisked off stage and about 10 minutes later we were given the all clear and permission to recess to a reception hosted by President O'Connell. CUA offered gifts to each guest - the book Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI and a brass medallion commemorating the occasion, engraved with the theme of this pontiff’s first visit to America - Christ Our Hope.

Reception buzz confirmed the encouragement we heard from his message and the affirmation of our work, notwithstanding the challenges faced by presidents and superintendents.  I look forward to reading and reflecting upon the text of the Holy Father's address. He is an academic and I trust he chose his words carefully and deliberately.  Several colleagues and I noted the absence of reference to Ex corde and we found comfort in the pastoral tone of his message.  I want to study more carefully his notion of "intellectual charity" and the transition of "I to We."  I intend to invite the campus community as well as our trustees and sponsors to engage in roundtable discussion on this important address.

I suspect there will be criticism of some passages and there will be those who wanted words spoken that were not. But he spoke to me.  I felt appreciated and nourished, in heart and soul.

 

The complete address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to educators can be found at: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2008/april/documents/
hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080417_cath-univ-washington_en.html