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By Delia Gallagher
The first time Pope John Paul II traveled to the United States he was 59. Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate his 81st birthday during his first papal visit to the United States. The age difference is only one of the many comparisons that will likely be drawn during Pope Benedict's visit.
If the pope this time is different, America, too, is a different place. When Pope John Paul II visited, the events of September 11, 2001, had not yet happened, the sex-abuse crisis that damaged the reputation of the Church in the United States was still unknown and the prospect of a black or woman president seemed a long way off.
What remains the same, however, is the message of both popes. Despite their different personalities and the changing times, both Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul bring the same message to America, albeit with varying emphases: Respect for the dignity of the human person is at the center of family life and, by extension, the world, and a world that wants peace must weigh all its actions in relation to this concept.
The dignity of the human person, because created by God, is at the heart of all the questions of ethics, economic injustice and war. And the freedom granted by this dignity must be used responsibly.
The first visit of Pope John Paul II to the United States, Oct. 1-7, 1979 -- less than a year after his election -- established the young, Polish pope as an international star. Time magazine called him "John Paul, Superstar" on its Oct. 15, 1979, cover, a moniker that never waned throughout his long pontificate.
The energy of his American audiences was matched, and doubled, by the naturally charismatic pope.
In his "Witness to Hope," papal biographer George Weigel recounts a scene in Madison Square Garden during this first trip to America: the pope in a converted Ford Bronco Popemobile slowly makes his way through the aisles of the arena, amid thousands of screaming teenagers, while a high school band plays themes from "Rocky" and "Battlestar Galactica." The teens throw T-shirts and jeans to the pope, who begins to imitate the drummer of the band and gives a "thumbs up" to the crowd. Once on stage, as the teenagers shout,"John Paul II, we love you!" the pope takes the microphone and says, "Woo-hoo-woo, John Paul II, he loves you!"
It is unlikely that Pope Benedict will greet his audiences with "woo-hoo-woo" or a thumbs-up. His is a quiet presence, no less powerful, but not given to exuberant displays of enthusiasm.
Veteran Vatican journalist John Thavis of Catholic News Service said, Pope Benedict "connects with audiences by developing his own no-frills way of communicating -- one that favors substance over style."
This pope engages audiences through clear, incisive words: he is the pope who called those priests guilty of sex abuses the "filth" of the Church; who challenged Muslim fundamentalists to question whether they believe in an irrational God.
In 1979, the Cold War was still on and the Polish pope, whom history would later prove right, had utmost in his mind the future of those countries that suffered under communism. Pope John Paul never mentioned the word communism during his United Nations address in 1979, but spoke about "injustices in the field of spirit" committed by those systems "in which the practical exercise of these freedoms condemns man ... to become a second-class or third-class citizen, to see compromised ... his professional career or his access to certain posts of responsibility, and to lose even the possibility of educating his children."
The scourge of communism has been replaced by terrorism in the 21st century, and Pope Benedict issued a similar provocation to Islamic fundamentalists when he suggested at Regensburg, Germany, in 2006 that their justification of violence might stem from a belief in an irrational God.
He was not applauded by much of the world for his stance, yet moderate Muslims have taken his challenge seriously. They are now engaged in self-examination and dialogue with the Vatican and the West.
Like Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict is not afraid to be countercultural and offer his analysis of the difficult underlying questions at the heart of modern ills.
Pope Benedict has also taken on some of the newer issues of today, such as care for the environment and a moratorium on the death penalty.
The problems of economic injustice and nuclear arms, both mentioned by Pope John Paul in his 1979 talk at the United Nations continue to be raised by Pope Benedict. In his 2008 Message for the World Day of Peace, Pope Benedict returned to these still unresolved themes.
At the University in New Orleans in 1987, Pope John Paul II touched on a theme that Pope Benedict XVI would take up vigorously -- Catholic intellectual inquiry. "Religious faith itself calls for intellectual inquiry," Pope John Paul told the audience, "and the confidence that there can be no contradiction between faith and reason is a distinctive feature of the Catholic humanistic tradition, as it existed in the past and as it exists in our own day."
In his 1987 meeting with U.S. Catholic university representatives, Pope John Paul reminded them that Catholic identity "depends upon the explicit profession of Catholicity on the part of the university as an institution and also upon the personal conviction and sense of mission on the part of its professors and administrators."
Pope Benedict believes that Catholics must know their history and their faith in order to live it, and has devoted his weekly Wednesday audiences at the Vatican to teaching about the great Christian figures of the past. He, too, will address leaders in Catholic education during his U.S. visit.
Both popes have spoken of their respect for, and hope in American democracy.
They also have lauded the generosity and good will of the American people and reminded them that their freedom brings with it great responsibility, including, as Pope John Paul said, "the relentless pursuit of truth," and continued efforts at "interreligious and intercultural dialogue as a positive force for peacemaking," as Pope Benedict said to Mary Ann Glendon, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.
The emphasis on the responsible use of freedom is a theme that both have addressed to America along with a reminder that this freedom is found ultimately in the dignity of each human person, and for Christians, in Jesus Christ.
Pope John Paul famously said at the United Nations in 1995 that he came not as a political leader or even a spiritual leader seeking special privileges, but as a "witness to hope."
Pope Benedict continued this theme of hope in his second encyclical, Spe Salvi ("Saved by Hope"), saying: "Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope."
Christians, both popes have said, firstly and lastly place their hope in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, it is this light that Pope Benedict hopes to share with the United States, just as Pope John Paul did before him.
Delia Gallagher is a Vatican journalist based in Rome.
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