One of the most exciting moments in my life as a priest occurred last month when I had the opportunity to hear and visit with Pope Benedict XVI during his trip to the United States.
I know what you're thinking: "Well, of course it was exciting for Father Dease. He's a priest, and the other guy is the pope!" While there is obviously some truth to that, the reasons for my excitement run much deeper.
I saw the pope on three occasions: his April 17 address in Washington, D.C., to presidents of Catholic colleges and universities and superintendents of Catholic schools, his April 18 address to the United Nations, and an April 20 reception in the residence of the U.N. papal nuncio.
On each occasion, I found this beaming pope to be warm, thoughtful and magnanimous. He spoke highly of the work that Catholic colleges and universities are doing in this country, and he urged us to continue to nurture the faith development of our students. At the U.N., he spoke directly to critical issues facing society, such as the importance of intervention in war-torn areas, the protection of migrants and attention to Africa.
Praise for educators
He greeted us Catholic educators with the words of Isaiah as quoted by Paul: "How beautiful are the footsteps of those who bring good news." He referred to those who serve in Catholic institutions of learning as "bearers of wisdom" and said the "noble goals of scholarship and education become an especially powerful instrument of hope."
The pope noted that he knows from his own days as a professor, and from recent reports, of the positive reputation of U.S. Catholic education. Catholic schools, he said, have "helped generations of immigrants to rise from poverty and take their place in mainstream society." He urged that we continue to work to assure our inner-city schools' "long-term sustainability" and that all Catholic institutions of learning are "accessible to people of all social and economic strata."
"A nation's fundamental aspiration . . . [is] to develop a society truly worthy of the human person's dignity," he said. Making room for the transcendent "enriches students with a vision that goes beyond the material and introduces them to the presence of goodness."
Pope Benedict also reaffirmed what he called "the great value of academic freedom" and urged a "search for truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you." He cautioned against betrayal of the identity and mission of Catholic universities, and he ended his speech with the words: "To all of you I say: bear witness to hope."
Connections to UST
I went to Washington and New York knowing that St. Thomas has a special connection with this pope. He, after all, is a St. Thomas alumnus. An honorary alumnus, that is, but an alumnus all the same.
On Feb. 13, 1984, he visited our St. Paul campus as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Holy See's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to commemorate St. John Vianney Seminary's 15th anniversary. He celebrated Mass in the St. Thomas chapel, delivered a lecture and received a St. Thomas honorary doctor of humane letters degree.
Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See's permanent observer to the United Nations, hosted the April 20 reception that I attended, and he represented another great St. Thomas connection. Archbishop Migliore delivered our undergraduate commencement address in May 2005, when he received an honorary doctor of laws degree. He has since graciously hired only St. Thomas graduates and students as interns for the Holy See's U.N. mission.
Correcting the pope
During the reception, I presented Pope Benedict with a photo of a much-younger Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger holding his honorary degree certificate. He responded with a chuckle and said he thought his visit must have been around 1986.
I said it actually was 1984 and pointed to the date in the inscription below his picture, and he commented on how much time had passed. Later, when I relayed this conversation to my friend, Father John Malone, he admonished me (good-naturedly, I think) for "correcting" the pope and suggested that what I should have said was, "Well, er, yes, Your Holiness, and I will correct the typo in the inscription right away."
I also gave Pope Benedict a bound copy of the 2007 issues of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought & Culture, which is published quarterly by the Center for Catholic Studies at St. Thomas. We will provide the Vatican with bound copies of previous issues of Logos.
Now, back on campus, I find myself feeling affirmed, appreciated and encouraged by his thoughtful message, his kindness and his graciousness, and I shall not soon forget my great fortune in having the opportunity to meet this man. Catholic Spirit [Jeepers, they've been writing up a storm this past week!]