Saturday, April 26, 2008

Benedict's US Visit: What You Haven't Heard (Part 1 of 3)

John Paul II announced a “new spring time” was coming for the Catholic Church. In fact, he first announced its coming in America. Let me be the first to tell you… Pope Benedict just brought it.

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.

First, realize where the Pope is coming from: Europe.

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:

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. . .

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.

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.
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword.
His truth is marching on.”
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.”

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: (I'll have more to say about this site very soon!)


Anonymous said...

Very good post, professor.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure here exactly what you're trying to say, Michael. You quote the Battle Hymn of the Republic and say,

"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'"

as if it is the pope who tramples out the "winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God." You go on to say,

"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.'"

Revelation 19:15 (the whole chapter, actually) and Isaiah 63:1-6 make it VERY clear that it is Jesus Christ Himself who tramples the winepress of the wrath of God. Isaiah 63:3 says,"I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me." John and Isaiah both emphasize and reiterate that Christ ALONE does this. Who exactly are you saying that the pope is?

Michael Barber said...


It is Jesus Christ who tramples out the vintage--and that will happen definitively on the last day. But Christ also sends out the apostles saying, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). And when they come back Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven" (Luke 10:18). But isn't Satan defeated on the last day? Absolutely, but already through the ministry of those sent out in his name Satan is defeated. In a penultimate way then he is already defeated through the ministry of those whom he sends out.

God bless...

Anonymous said...

The problem with your explanation is that Jesus says, "I have the trodden the winepress ALONE, and from the peoples NO ONE was with Me." (Is. 63:3) And again, "I looked, but there was NO ONE to help, and I wondered that there was NO ONE to uphold." (emphasis added) What, indeed, does "alone" and "no one" mean?

The point is made, especially throughout Revelation (and Isaiah 63), that NONE but Jesus Christ is worthy to perform these deeds. There are "works" that the Lord has prepared for us to do, but these are not the works (opening the scrolls, trampling out the winepress of the wrath of God, finally and completely defeating satan).

He sends out the apostles to "heal the sick there, and to say to them, 'the kingdom of God has come near to you.'" (Luke 10:9) They are to go out with His message, and if that is rejected by people, then the people are rejecting Him. He gives them authority over the enemy, but only under Him. They have no authority on their own. If they go out with their own message, they have overstepped their authority.

Again, NO ONE could be found worthy, as Jesus points out in Isaiah 63:5 when He says, "Therefore, My own arm brought salvation for Me."

With all due respect, Michael, be careful what "authority" you ascribe to mere mortals. To finish out the Scripture passage in Luke that you refer to, Jesus says, "Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven." (Luke 10:20)

Anonymous said...


I think Dr. Barber's point is that while it is Christ who has done and is doing these things, the historical, practical fact is that they are still working out in our midst. The working out is taking place in a large way through the Vicar of Christ.

Michael Barber said...


In fact, Christ shares with the apostles what he does Himself--even things we know God alone can do. For example, consider the following. When Jesus forgives the paralytic of his sins, the Pharisees object--"Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:7). Of course, Jesus doesn't contest this--it is true, only God can forgive sins. So what does Jesus do? We read He turned to them and said, "...that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins'—he said to the paralytic—'I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home'" (Mark 2:10-11). Jesus demonstrates his divinity in this episode--he forgives sins and only God can do that.

But here's what's amazing. Jesus tells the apostles the following in John 20: "“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22).

Wait a minute! I thought only God could forgive sins! Of course that's true. But Christ works through the apostles.

And, of course, that was what the early Church thought. That's how they understood it! See Ignatius' Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 8:

"See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop."

Anonymous, I understand where you're coming from. But I think you misunderstand what I'm saying. It is Christ alone who forgives sins--but he acts through the apostles, who couldn't forgive anything. Forgiving or retaining sins is only possible because it is Christ working through them.

Anonymous said...


I believe we are understanding each other somewhat, but you are trying to engage me in an argument that I have not made. Of course I believe that we are Christ's ambassadors on earth, to carry His message of forgiveness, to carry the gospel, to carry His healing. No dispute there. We began this discussion with you painting a scenario where the Army Chorus implored (albeit unwittingly) Pope Benedict to trample out the vintage of God's wrath... an office that I have contended that Christ has reserved for Himself. I think the case has been made from scripture. Certainly, you are not suggesting that Christ reserves nothing for Himself alone?

One simple illustration, then I will leave you alone on the subject. Picture the throne room scene in Revelation 4-5. John is blessed overwhelmingly with a glimpse of God's glory, with angels and living creatures and elders worshipping before the throne. When John sees a scroll early in chapter 5, and is given to understand that there is no one among that distinguished company worthy to open the scroll, he does not volunteer: "I'm one of Christ's apostles. He wouldn't mind if I did this for Him." Rather, he weeps. Do you believe the scenario would have played out differently if Benedict, or anyone else in the succession of pontiffs, or even Peter, had been present? No, none of the elders were found worthy; the strong angel was not found worthy; none in heaven but the Lamb alone. Indeed, Christ gives authority. That authority only extends so far.

God's blessings.

Anonymous said...


Your last comments have helped me more than you know.

Anonymous said...

(This is a different "anonymous"). I thought this wasn't meant to be a "political" blog! Be very careful gentlemen with all this. From "old Europe" can I just say that from our side of the pond we see that in the US there is a lot of "churchgoing" but it seems to us to be little more than a social practice little different from watching the Superbowl. There is endless adulation of "faith" by the authorities and the media, particularly if it involves less asking of awkward questions about society and its socio-economic structures, but the substantive content of that faith is deemed largely irrelevant (as befits a nation founded by deistic Freemasons). This is manifest in the massive amount of church-hopping engaged in by Americans, even, sadly, among Catholics. Religion is too often just yet another consumer product with its entrepreneurial hucksters and slick marketing men, and shares in the general vulgarisation inherent in capitalist culture.

Too often the flag drives out the cross: the problem with the Battle Hymn of the Republic is that it can too often be used to conflate the Church and the nation. Yes the war to free the slaves for which the hymn was written was a righteous cause, perhaps one of the few truly just wars in human history, but what about many other military actions by the US not least the rape of Iraq in which my own land is also fully complicit? It is on the cross, in his loving suffering self-sacrificial death that Our Lord trampled the winepress of wrath, alone. There were no B52s with him.

For far to long we have all allowed ourselves to accept that the command of the false gods "national security" or "fatherland" or "the national interest" or "freedom" (whatever that means) justifies members of the Body of Christ killing and making war upon one another. To often have we accepted that the commands of the false gods "market forces", "the bottom line", "profit", "business is business", justifies members of the Body of Christ exploiting one another, treating one another as means and not as ends, firing one another, keeping one another in poverty and misery and insecurity.

To often have we adopted a quasi-Gnosticism whereby only the Second Coming accomplishes anything, and the First Coming is merely to give us information about how bad the world is, how pointless it is to try and change anything, and how to get out. When we do that, no wonder the Jews don't think much of Our Messiah!

And to often have we bifurcated our moral lives: a world "below the waist" where absolutes and non-negotiables reign, and anaethemas and excommunications are hurled, and a world "above the waist" where nothing is ever held to account, and all is merely "prudential judgement", and the oppressed can be continually smashed in the face day and night with a clear conscience, and where the "the family" is endlessly celebrated yet the system that in its ferociously anarchic dynamism regularly stresses and strains it and breaks it time and again is allowed to let rip, accelerating ever faster.

We have long memories in the old continent, and when we look across the pond, we grow increasingly alarmed with what we see. The Church, debilitated by so much in recent decades, can still be a great voice in the coming storm, but only when she is truly herself, and discerns the Body, and no longer seeks merely to present herself as just another mainline US denomination, whether "liberal" or "conservative", and remembers that she is global.

There was a reason the Holy Father did not attend the dinner in his honour at the White House. He has not forgotten what it means to sit down and eat with someone, and that he could not do. It will have not gone unnoticed in the Middle East.

Michael Barber said...

Anonymous 2,

(Why don't people sign names?)

You're right--America has a LOT of problems. And I'm certainly not agreeing with Bush on everything. There's a lot that has to be done--no doubt about it.

It was just nice to say something positive about the country I live in.

Sorry if I offended you.

Anonymous said...

I shouldn't have read the comments... they sort of 'ruined' the beauty of what you were trying to convey. Anyway, i believe that Dr. Barber was and is always looking at 'events' in the 'light of faith'. We can all get lost somehow and go down to the level of 'analyzing words, etc.' or even philosophizing. And we somehow miss the point. I read the blog entry and it spoke to my heart. There are things we need to look at and understand way beyond the mere words used in conveying the 'truth revealed'. Dr. Barber, you have shown me the bigger picture of what has happened during the Pope's visit and the welcome ceremony. I look forward to read Part II.
God bless you... and your beautiful wife.

kentuckyliz said...

I just listened to the Robert Shaw Chorale version of that song while reading the post, and having just read Spe Salvi yesterday. Very moving!

The man is brilliant and has a lot of heart. I love my German Shepherd!