‘Freedom is not enough,’ cautions pope
by Jonathan Lewis
I thought it was spam.
If not for my friends, who began talking about the e-mails they’d received from the White House, my invitation to see the pope might never have made it out of my junk folder.
Fortunately, however, it was still there when I went to retrieve it. And on the morning of April 16, after waiting for hours in a line that wrapped from the White House to the Washington Monument, I joined 50 other students from Catholic University in presenting my “purple section” White House Lawn ticket and took up a spot on the South Lawn.
The view was straight out of a history book — directly facing the back of the White House, decorated for the day with beautiful papal-yellow flowers. There on the South Lawn, we students and other guests would help President [George W.] Bush welcome Pope Benedict to the United States: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
When President and Laura Bush finally came out to the podium, they were not more than 30 yards in front of me; Pope Benedict joined them just a few minutes later. Upon the pope’s arrival, the crowd broke out in a spontaneous rendition of “Happy Birthday” to the now-81 year-old pontiff.
The theme of Pope Benedict’s White House speech struck a special chord with me, a philosophy major. There he discussed the relationship between freedom, natural law, and moral values.
But at each venue at which I heard him speak — that day at the White House, during Mass at the Nationals baseball stadium, and finally, on the campus of Catholic University — he kept building on the same theme: America, you have so much to offer the world in your support of freedom, but freedom alone is not enough to build a moral society.
That first of the pope’s many addresses this past week seemed to transform the White House lawn into a university lecture hall. Speaking alongside President Bush on a cloudless, warm day, Benedict detailed the history of American freedom and the foundational role it plays in U.S. government.
The strength of the American notion of freedom is, as Benedict said, that “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,” an idea that religion strengthens.
This “moral order” is what Benedict was promoting in his U.S. tour. It was a part of nearly every talk that he gave in D.C., and its foundation in natural law resounded in his address to the United Nations.
Whether at the White House discussing religious freedom, or speaking to Catholic educators about academic freedom, the pope consistently reinforced the idea that freedom itself is not sufficient to provide a moral order to society.
Freedom can, however, and must, be the foundation on which a moral order is laid.
I “slept in” until 6:30 a.m. Thursday —I had to get up at 5:45 the day before — then headed out to see the pope again, this time at Nationals [Park], which had been transformed into a beautifully prayerful and surprisingly intimate liturgical space for over 40,000 people.
Though the Mass started at 10 a.m., I had arrived later than most people at 7:30 a.m.; thousands arrived at 5:30 a.m. when the gates opened. As I walked inside, I noticed that the lines for water, souvenir shirts, and confession were at least 30 people deep at every station. Confession was offered starting at 5:30 a.m., and there were still lines up until the time the Mass began. I was surprised to find that a friend from school, who is not a regular churchgoer and who mostly tells stories about his nightly partying, was in the line for confession before Mass.
He told me he could not remember the last time he had been to confession, but that he didn’t think he should go to Mass with the pope with all he had on his soul.
After confession, as I walked to find my seat, I saw that the stage, altar, and chair, designed by some friends attending Catholic University’s architecture school, were positioned in deep center field facing the over 40,000 worshippers. I was fortunate enough to have a seat with a great view in a section filled with college students from CUA and the nearby University of Maryland. As soon as the Holy Father arrived via popemobile, the entire crowd rose to their feet and broke into euphoric clapping and cheers.
The Mass had a unique, culturally diverse flavor. The first reading, a few songs, as well as a shortened homily by Benedict, were delivered in Spanish. Other languages such as German, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese, Igbo, Latin, and Greek were also used.
Before the diverse crowd, the pope offered words of encouragement to all American Catholics and commended their contributions to the faith through education, social service initiatives, and zeal in prayer. He prayed for “healing and reconciliation” for all the victims of clerical sexual abuse, but also asked that all Catholics pray for and love their priests.
The size of the crowd hardly registered in a stadium filled, alternately, with silent prayer and sacred music. I was surprised at the number of teens and young adults at the Mass. It reminded me of the first time that I ever saw the pope, then John Paul II, at World Youth Day in Toronto in 2001, and what a powerful moment that was for me.
The opportunity to attend Mass with the universal shepherd of the church helped me as a teen to recognize that, as Catholics, we are a part of something worldwide.
Surprisingly, it has been some of the largest Masses that I have attended that have helped me to feel closely connected to the church.
Right after Mass, a few friends and I rushed to the metro to head back to CUA, where, as a student, I had volunteered to work the pope’s visit to our university center later that day. After passing through airport-like security set up by the Secret Service (apparently the pope’s security level is the highest that exists, even higher than the president’s!), I took my station inside the center. There I welcomed many of the heads of Catholic colleges and universities and superintendents from around the country attending the pope’s address on Catholic education in America, including Stephen Minnis, president of Benedictine College in Atchison and Kathy O’Hara, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese.
In his address, Benedict thanked the educators for their work and encouraged them to continue to foster the Catholic identity of Catholic schools, and returned to his overriding theme of freedom.
Academic freedom, he explained, is not the freedom to teach whatever you please, but rather the freedom to teach what is right and good since truth — not simply knowledge — is the goal of learning.
The conclusion of the address was greeted with enthusiastic applause, and as the Holy Father exited to the strains of “Tu es Petrus,” he was greeted outside by thousands of students who had listened to his talk on a JumboTron. The pope first waved, then blushed, at the student’s persistent cheers.
But even after he was eventually escorted into the popemobile, he rolled down his window, leaned out and waved as he left, his face aglow.
Although much has been made of the differences between Pope Benedict and his predecessor, I found him, in a sense, to be more like John Paul II than many would have ever predicted.
The JPII generation, of which I am a part, will always have a special place in its heart for the late Holy Father. But it was clear to me that with Benedict’s warm smile and thoughtful words, the professor-made-pope has secured his place in the hearts of the American faithful by offering an experience with Christ, a message of love, and a future full of hope.
Jonathan Lewis, a member of Ascension Parish in Overland Park, graduated from Holy Cross Grade School and St. Thomas Aquinas High School. He is currently a senior and studying philosophy at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.