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American Catholics Look to Pope for Guidance


I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, a new documentary examines how our races and class may affect our health. The film was called "Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?", and the filmmakers will be with us in just a few minutes.

But first, Pope Benedict XVI is in the United States this week. It's his first trip to the country as Pontiff, and he's only the second Pope to visit the U.S. Pope Benedict is set to address a crowd of more than 45,000 of the faithful at D.C.'s new baseball stadium tomorrow, but his true audience is really the millions of American Catholics, the many who welcome his visit, as well as those who may be questioning their future with the Catholic Church. To learn more about the Pope's trip and what he hopes to accomplish, I traveled yesterday to the campus of Catholic University, not too far from our studios here in Washington. There I met up with Monsignor Kevin Irwin, he's the Dean of the Catholic University School of Theology. The preparations for the Pope's visit were very much in evidence. TV crews were setting up, landscapers were working away, and flyers were stuck on car windows telling folks to move out. But even with all of that, I asked the monsignor if Pope Benedict was able to stir excitement like his predecessor Pope John Paul II.


Monsignor KEVIN IRWIN (Dean, Catholic University School of Theology): We see enormous excitement on our campus, but frankly I think because he's a fairly unknown Pope, there's wondering who is he, what will he say, what's he like? Understand that he comes pretty much as a grandfather figure. He doesn't come as a 50-year-old Holy Father John Paul II. He comes a bit more reserved. Also, he's an academician, he's a writer, he's a skilled author, a bit more reserved than John Paul II. On the other hand, who wouldn't want to follow John Paul II in terms of the path that he's given us in terms of visibility?

MARTIN: Well, I could make an argument that you might not want to follow him. That's like, you know, me having to follow, you know, Barack Obama on stage. I don't know that I want that job. I think that's a pretty tall order.

Monsignor IRWIN: Sure it is, but we all come with our gift. There's a phrase from Latin America, we all drink from our own wells. Well, it's a different well, and this well is a bit more reserved, a bit more concerned with theology, concerned with inside-the-church issues, a bit more than John Paul II would have been.

MARTIN: How do you think the relationship between Pope Benedict and the American Church, has developed since his election in 2005?

Monsignor IRWIN: I think the Americans have come to see him less as the enforcer of rigid orthodoxy, which was, let's face it, a sound bite and not always fair, to someone who I think has taken a helicopter ride, sees a larger terrain, and says my job is the whole piece here. It's pastoral care as well as correcting doctrine. It's welcoming people on many different faiths, many different traditions to come, to see him, and to be a part of that. I think he's a very - he'll be perceived as a far more open person than was his press before.


MARTIN: What do you think Pope Benedict hopes to accomplish with this visit?

Monsignor IRWIN: The word he's given us is, Christ is our hope. And from that, I believe he means that despite whatever the pressures, whatever the society we live in, whatever we've suffered in life, whatever the scandals, Christ is always there for us, supporting us, and I think it's a question of hope and encouragement, despite what might be - we see around us, or even internally feel about ourselves. Christ is the hope and encouragement to us.

MARTIN: Do you see his visit as evangelical, in part, to spread the good news of the Catholic Church to those who perhaps have fallen away from it, or who may not be acquainted with it, or do you think his visit is mainly to serve those who are already a member of the church?

Monsignor IRWIN: Well, I believe he has a number of purposes in mind. It is certainly inside the church to encourage the faithful to be more faithful, to welcome folks back and say that the door is always open, Catholics can always come home. But then last week his statement to the U.S. was to the whole United States and to the various religions here and the various populations here, and part of the letter was in Spanish. So he's articulating a wider lens on the U.S. and welcoming that, and that the same time, let's be fair, part of his agenda will be political and international relations - the White House and the United Nations.

MARTIN: You know, you brought up a number of issues that I wanted to talk about, and when you talk about bringing hope to the church, I don't think we can deny that there's been tremendous turmoil in the Catholic Church in recent years in part because of the sexual-abuse scandals, which I know have been very painful, both for members of the leadership and also for the laity. These scandals have had terrible financial consequences around the country for some of the diocese.

Monsignor IRWIN: We learned last week from the Cardinal Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertoni, he will address the issue of the abuse crisis. It's an enormous scandal, it's a blight on our recent history, no question about that, two billion dollars paid out in settlements, so that is a problem for us institutionally, but Cardinal Bertoni said he will address it on Saturday at the mass at St. Patrick's. What will he say? I'll be watching as you will.

MARTIN: And I believe that many Catholics in Boston had hoped that the Pope would stop there, in part as a gesture of reconciliation of healing, he has not chosen to do that. I just wonder why, if you have any insight as to why not?

Monsignor IRWIN: I really don't, except that part of the agenda of his coming is that it's 200 years since the Diocese of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, have been founded. You can only go so many places. The U.N. was a set piece in this enterprise, and once he was going to come there it was going to come to Washington to see the president. In that sense, you've got the tender of why New York, why Washington, but then one can say why not Baltimore, why not Philadelphia, in that sense there are other places one could easily go.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and we're talking about Pope Benedict's visit to the United States with Monsignor Kevin Irwin of Catholic University. We are here in his office on campus. You mentioned that part of the Pope's message was in Spanish. Why?

Monsignor IRWIN: Certainly one of the greatest challenges right now for us is a Hispanic Latino population, which is not always satisfied with the institutional Catholic Church in America. They don't always find a welcome, language, culture, kind of piety, and in that sense it's reaching out in ways that many Diocese have done, but not all have done all they could for the Hispanic population.

MARTIN: You know the Pope has a tremendous bully pulpit. Do you think that he will address immigration either as a political issue or as a moral issue? Clearly, this is an important issue, I bet, to a lot of people in the church, and I bet you there are some very different feelings about it within the church.

Monsignor IRWIN: Well, I think this will be under the banner of what he might address as basic Catholics' core beliefs. First of all, I have not seen any of the texts, and as far as I know, no one has seen them on this side of the Atlantic, and I don't know what he's going to say where. My sense of, could easily be - in some part of the U.N. speech would be the appropriate place to see it.

MARTIN: Speaking of other issues of interest to people of color. In many urban environments the experience that some - many people have with the Catholic Church is in the church schools. For a number of reasons, the Catholic Church has been closing some of these schools in a number of urban areas, or trying to convert them to charter schools. Is that issue something that is either a priority for the Pope or the church on the whole? Do you think that's something he might address?

Monsignor IRWIN: I would not think he would address that because I believe that one thing that Pope Benedict is, is very respectful of the local bishop having to make decisions in a diocese. Closing of schools certainly is a loss. For many people at the same time - some diocese work tirelessly to keep them in open, as in Washington D.C., Cardinal Hickey worked very hard in that, and then you look at Memphis, which just reopened four schools in the last several years. Not always with Catholic populations, but the notion of good education as our responsibility, and it could be a means of evangelizing. And the phrase that I always think is important to remember is about having people who are not Catholic in schools, we don't necessarily teach them because they're Catholic, we teach them because we're Catholic, and that's one of our responsibilities is education.

MARTIN: Many black Catholics wonder where the next generation of priests for their community is going to come from, though, and that's one of the reasons why the whole Catholic-school experience is so important. For some, that is where they get their exposure to the faith, and I don't know whether the Pope spends time thinking about the demographics, you know, of the church, but I do wonder whether he is concerned, as some of these communities are concerned, about whether - which isn't to say that every parish wants to have a black priest or an African-American priest, but you do wonder whether, just as, say, among the Latino community, some see Latino Catholics moving to Pentecostalism, whether the Pope is concerned that the church is losing its appeal among some of these, sort of, traditional supporters.

Monsignor IRWIN: No doubt that's on his mind. No doubt that he has some familiarity with that in terms of statistics. At the same time, this Pope is a friend of Archbishop Wilton Gregory from Atlanta, who went to a Catholic school and became a Catholic, and his family is not Catholic and has risen to become an Archbishop. And he is exactly and example of what you're talking about, and that's a concern as to how to keep that kind of feeding into the priesthood to continue. At the same time, I'd have to say that there's a number of diocese and efforts targeting young men today, and we're seeing an uptick in numbers. It's not quite as dire as it was 10 years ago.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask about the, well, you know, this is sort of a separate issue but will you talk a little bit, you and I, about, kind of, race and so forth. We're in the middle of a very heated presidential election in this country. There's some interesting racial and gender questions that have come to the floor because of the people who are running. Does the Pope have an interest in this?

Monsignor IRWIN: I'm sure an interest. I would think he would say nothing about it, but certainly an interest and to see how that's playing out in the United States. This large country will never be the same, let's face it. An African-American, a woman running for president. We're not going to be the same. It's not going to be the same old club that it was, and it's a whole new enthusiasm in the political process. So, I think we're not going to be the same. In that sense, he surely had been briefed about the fact that political life is quite different.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you what a visit like this means to you.

Monsignor IRWIN: To me? Oh, well. To me, first of all, he was a priest professor, so, guess what I am? I'm one of the last in Christendom. So I'm a priest professor. To see a role model like that is extraordinary for me. Theologian taught, he did words, he did preaching and teaching as an educator. That means a great deal to me. It's a great deal to our campus in terms of supporting us as the bishops' university in this country, and as a university professor I believe he comes with a great deal of depth and challenge to our faculties to even do more research and to work harder at the craft of theology. I think the example is very, very important on many levels for us.

MARTIN: Could you describe, though, for those who perhaps are un-churched or who are not members of this church, what it means to be in the presence of the Pontiff and to celebrate mass with him?

Monsignor IRWIN: It is, quite frankly, an extraordinary experience always to celebrate mass as a priest. But to be in a place where the Pope celebrates that, it has all the symbolic value of the whole universal Church and all of a sudden, southeast Washington is going to be once more transformed and reminded that we're part of an entire, whole, universal, worldwide church and the Pope represents that. And that, to me, is encouraging. It's humbling, quite honestly, to be a part of that. And a reminder that the Catholic umbrella is very, very large. And we're a couple of spokes under it and that's humbling, but also very satisfying. It's supporting that it's much bigger than we are.

MARTIN: Monsignor Kevin Irwin is the Dean of the Catholic University School of Theology. He was kind enough to welcome us to his office on the Catholic University campus. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

Monsignor IRWIN: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.