The Students and the Pope


Particularly in springtime, the campus of The Catholic University of America is arguably one of the prettiest in the country. But in anticipation of a visit from Pope Benedict XVI, the school — which is America’s only pontifical university, supported by the bishops and the pope — did freshen itself up, installing a new curb here, planting some additional flowers there.
Wisely, no money or time was spent re-sodding the two great lawns of the campus, the larger of which runs parallel to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Benedict would be presiding at vespers and — in the beautiful Crypt Church — addressing his bishops.
Anticipating his visit, thousands of CUA students gathered on that lawn hours before his arrival, singing, chatting, tossing footballs in this bucolic setting and patiently waiting to, as one student said, “get a peek at the pope.”

For students who had known only one pope their whole lives, the ebullient showman, Pope John Paul II, this “new” and rather unassuming Benedict — just beginning the third year of his papacy — was something of a mystery to them. While those gathering were predisposed to like him and anxious to honor his office, there was also a sense of not really knowing the man beyond the “hard-line enforcer” narrative that accompanied every news story they read or heard. And so while the enthusiasm of the gathering was genuine, it was tempered with a sense of vagueness. “Other than him being the head of my church . . . I’m very much Catholic, so it’s like an American seeing the president,” said Dan. “But we don’t really know him,” someone else chimed in.
Recalling the exuberant phrase they had heard all their lives, “JPII; we love you,” — which had sprung up organically during John Paul II’s visit to New York City in 1979, before they were born — some attempted to invent a slogan of similarly lucid brevity for his successor, but between not “knowing” him and the difficulty of rhyming “Benedict,” nothing useful emerged:
“B16; like a dream” seemed silly for a “rottweiller” pope dedicated to reason.
“B16; not really mean” was deemed both defensive and lame.
“B16: won’t ordain Maureen” brought snickers and shaking heads. Um, no.
When Benedict finally did pope-mobile his way up and around the Shrine and into the campus, he was greeted enthusiastically, first by the Dominican religious (from the nearby Dominican House of Studies) and other ticket holders gathered on the basilica’s front steps, and then by the energized CUA students whose roar could be heard by those gathered inside the church. It was a cacophony of unintelligible sound; approving hoots, and assorted cheers with few yelps of “Viva Papa!” and “Yay, Pope!” While quite genuine, the enthusiasm was largely incoherent until, remembering that the pontiff turned 81 that day, the crowd broke into a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday, Holy Father.”
Treated to their first live glimpse of Benedict, most were satisfied. “He’s Peter on earth, so its amazing to have the Vicar of Christ coming to your school,” said Carolyn Berlandy, who was delighted to hold a ticket to the next day’s mass at Nationals Stadium, adding, “I’m really excited. I think it’s going to be awesome. “
Even those without a ticket looked forward to seeing Benedict again within 24 hours. Mark, who had waited for hours beside the basilica said he would do it again the next day, on the Law School lawn. “I am a young catholic in the church and it means a lot that he is the Vicar of Christ and we are here . . . . It’s really cool [of Benedict] to come here and speak to our country about tradition.”
When asked, most students were inclined to make positive comparisons between the playfulness of John Paul II and Benedict’s quieter manner. After watching the stadium mass from a campus broadcast, Erica H., who had glimpsed his arrival at the basilica the day before mused, “there is just a warmth about him; he is not very flashy, but there is something about him that draws you to him. When he came and walked up the steps and then turned and waved to us, the whole atmosphere seemed to change.”
“Benedict’s personality shows that he is a more scholarly pope and he demonstrates the solemnity of his office,” Karl S. concurred. “He doesn’t really act like a kind of a rock star, and that’s okay, too.”
Many students said that watching the pope at mass had helped them to get better acquainted with Benedict. Said Jackie, “he’s pope, so the greatness is already there, [but] the mass made him seem warmer.” Student Robert P., part of the Campus Youth Ministry remarked, “he has exceeded my expectations,” and spoke of how the gatherings of the past few days had moved him. “To see the excitement of the seminarians and the devotion of the older priests and bishops, the great love that overwhelms — it does inspire and challenge me, even to thinking about a religious vocation.”
As a new crowd assembled on the grass near the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center (“The Pryz”) where the pontiff was to meet 400 educators, Benedict seemed more familiar to them than he had the day before. Students spoke positively and repeatedly about what they perceived to be his “real warmth” and humility.
Their appreciation was further stirred when, only moments before the pontiff’s arrival, the stunning news broke: Against all expectation, Benedict had met privately with victims of the sexual abuse scandals which had roiled the church in 2002, and brought a sense of shame, outrage, and helplessness to both clergy and laity. Details were scarce, not much was known beyond this startling fact: The shy, elderly Bishop of Rome had done what too many American bishops had not. He had placed himself in the path of the pain of these victims, and he had apologized. In doing so he had faced and taken responsibility for the agony of so many, and the disgust of millions more.
This was a tremendous and heroic move toward hope and healing, and the news rippled through the crowd even as the papal limousine pulled before them. The pope — who had begun the day with a huge Mass and then faced his church’s most wounded, and who still had more meetings to take and speeches to give before the day was out — emerged and walked meekly around the car to acknowledge the waiting students. They greeted him back with a roof-raising shout of affection and approval that, though the crowd was smaller, seemed much louder than the incoherent racket of the previous day.
It seemed louder because it was louder, and more assured. Between his gentle stadium mass and his extraordinary meeting with people in pain, the mystery of Benedict XVI had been solved. Turning to enter the Pryz, the German man born Joseph Alois Ratzinger stopped to greet senior student Peter Osgood, who presented him with roses, and suddenly a chant rose up behind him — organically, spontaneously, and with full-throated awareness and surety.
The students of Catholic University finally knew who it was they were calling to, both the man and the office, and the chant came, with not a few tears: “Peter! Peter! Peter!”


  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Elizabeth Scalia is the popular writer and blogger known as “The Anchoress.” She writes a weekly column for First Things and is the managing editor for the Catholic Portal at Patheos.

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