Before you read on, I want to say something.
There's been much written about Pope Benedict's visit to the US. You'll find commentary in the media, in the Catholic blogosphere, in Catholic-friendly arenas, in anti-Catholic forums—like I said, a lot has been said.
But there's a lot about this visit that you're not hearing. A lot of that has to do with the fact that most of the commentators don't know how to contextualize what just happened. Here I want to do that.
Just what happened with this visit. Well, the short answer is: way more than most people realize. Let me explain... and, as I said before, let me do so by helping to provide the framework for understanding why this visit was so big.
What used to be “Christendom” is now, well, (*err*)… something else. Churches are practically empty. There is a growing animosity to faith. In fact, certain political parties have made “secularizing” (read: moving religion out of the public discussion) major planks in political platforms.
Take the constitution of the EU, for example. The appearance of the word “God” in the document became the focal point of a major debate. Pope Benedict, of course, has passionately urged the EU to include “God”. So far, he’s lost. “God” is out.
And so Pope Benedict leaves Europe and comes to America. And what happened?
First, upon touchdown he was greeted by the President of the United States, who met him on the tarmac. This is the first time President Bush has ever gone to greet a foreign dignitary at the airport. Normally, they go to him. This time, the President went to the airport, essentially, to give the Pope a ride.
As if that wasn’t enough, the next day’s events were unprecedented. The Pope was greeted in Washington, D.C. in what many are saying was the most lavish welcome ceremony given to a foreign leader in the history of the White House. After being given the twenty-one gun salute―the highest ceremonial salute possible (e.g., it is used to honor dead presidents)―the President welcomed the Pope with these words:
Did the President really just allude to Benedict’s long-fought war for truth in the face of relativism?! Do yourself a favor and sometime go and read it in its entirety.
Here in America you'll find a nation of prayer. Each day millions of our citizens approach our Maker on bended knee, seeking His grace and giving thanks for the many blessings He bestows upon us. Millions of Americans have been praying for your visit, and millions look forward to praying with you this week. . .
Here in America you'll find a nation that welcomes the role of faith in the public square. . .
Most of all, Holy Father, you will find in America people whose hearts are open to your message of hope. And America and the world need this message. In a world where some invoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate, we need your message that "God is love." And embracing this love is the surest way to save men from "falling prey to the teaching of fanaticism and terrorism."
In a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred, and that "each of us is willed, each of us is loved" -- (applause) -- and your message that "each of us is willed, each of us is loved, and each of us is necessary."
In a world where some no longer believe that we can distinguish between simple right and wrong, we need your message to reject this "dictatorship of relativism," and embrace a culture of justice and truth. . .
The Pope then delivered his address. In it he addressed the role of freedom, praising America for its commitment to liberty. In a particular way, Pope Benedict appreciates the religious liberty America stands for.
The context for the Pope’s praise clearly has to be found in the recognition that he has to deal with the fact that Christians throughout the world struggle under Islamic and communist regimes where their faith is persecuted. In fact, just recently Catholic bishop was kidnapped and executed in Iraq.
One could not help but hear the debate over the EU in the background of this plea:
From the dawn of the Republic, America's quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation's founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature's God.However, the Pope went on to warn that freedom is not merely license, but “a summons to personal responsibility.” He went on to say,
The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good, and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one's deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.Again, do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.
When the Pope finished, the fireworks didn’t end. The President leaned over and the microphone―still on―captured his words: “Awesome speech your holiness. I think we’re supposed to sit down for one more moment.”
I was not prepared for what was coming next.
The army chorus saluted the pope with a song all Americans know. It’s a song that evokes the deepest patriotic sensibilities. But I will never hear them the same way again. The army chorus welcomed the Pope, singing these words: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. . .”
In fact, the sentiment was echoed by President Bush. When asked what he thought of the Pope, Bush stated, “I looked in his eyes and I saw God.”
The song went on to describe the coming of a Lord very different from the “I’m-okay-you’re-okay-God” of political correctness:
“He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.The military seemed to be saying, “Welcome Holy Father. We know who you are and we know what you’ve come to do. Trample out the vintage, loose the terrible swift sword. Truth is marching on.”
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword.
His truth is marching on.”
Whatever the musicians were thinking, it was clear what the Pope was doing. Eyes-closed, you could read him singing (or was it praying?) along: "Glory, glory, Hallelujah!"
All this happened at the White House!
Yes, America has its warts and wrinkles. We've got a lot to answer for here. But while the light of faith is being snuffed out in Europe, there's still a spark in America.
But that’s not the end of it. Here’s the most amazing part―and no one else seems to be pointing it out.
That song was inspired by Revelation 14, which reads:
"Then I looked, and lo, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. . . 17 So he who sat upon the cloud swung his sickle on the earth, and the earth was reaped. 18 Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has power over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Put in your sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” 19 So the angel swung his sickle on the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God; 20 and the wine press was trodden outside the city. . ."When I realized that, I got chills. Let me explain.
Every morning the Pope prays the Liturgy of the Hours―the prayer book prayed by virtually all priests, religious and many lay people. Before he went to the White House that day, the Pope prayed from the Office of Readings, pre-selected for that day.
The first reading was from Revelation 14--the exact passage that inspired the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
What moved the army chorus to play a song inspired by that reading? Were they reading the Liturgy of the Hours too that day? I doubt it. The readings were set in stone long ago when the liturgical calendar was determined. But I think this visit was also planned a while ago as well―and I’m not talking about the work of the organizers in the Vatican.
(Part II forthcoming shortly.)
To listen to the performance of the Battle Hymn of the Republic played at the ceremony mentioned above, check out: www.christourhope.net (I'll have more to say about this site very soon!)