Following Pope Benedict to the 'ends of the earth'

I have to admit I didn't follow Pope Benedict XVI's July 12-21 trip to Australia for World Youth Day with anywhere near the intensity I did his trip earlier this year to the United States. For one thing, he was 10,000 miles away, and in virtually an opposite time zone.

The pope, in the best apostolic tradition, went literally to "the ends of the earth," the last phrase, according to the Acts of the Apostles, that Jesus pronounced before ascending into heaven.

But, of course, Pope Benedict was not the first pontiff to visit the land of koalas and kangaroos. Not only did the most-traveled pope in history, John Paul II, make the trip twice, in 1986 and 1995, Pope Paul VI spent four days in Sydney in late 1970.

Back then, Catholics in other parts of the world could be forgiven for not following the papal travels in real time -- it just wasn't possible. But with cable television and Internet video, websites with texts and photos, and young i-reporters filing their impressions via cell-phone cameras, it should have been very easy to any of us to be "virtual pilgrims" alongside the pope.

Maybe the multitude of options was part of the problem. Where do you even start? (Or in my case, when you start, how are you going to stop?) So I decided on paring down, and sticking strictly to the papal texts (and the editorials of local Australian newspapers to see how the pope's message was playing). The texts are available on the Vatican website, www.vatican.va, and went up in a timely fashion.

What is it I find so gripping about Pope Benedict's talks? (As I've noted before, I've read literally hundreds of papal speeches, mostly from Pope John Paul's pontificate.) I think the reason is that he constantly surprises me.

I'm hooked. Looking for the surprises keeps me reading, and reading. He has a unique ability to say things that most of us have pretty much have known since our childhood catechesis, but in such a new light that it causes an "aha" moment, an expansion of your intellectual universe. Try it; you may get hooked, too.

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Last week was our special issue commemorating the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae ("Of Human Life"), Pope Paul VI's encyclical on conjugal love that reiterated the Church's prohibition on contraception. Janet Smith, a moral theologian who contributed one of the main stories to our coverage, has called my attention to a special Humanae Vitae issue of Mosaic, the magazine of Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary, where she teaches. I heartily recommend that you check it out. To find it, go to the Detroit archdiocese's website, www.aodonline.org, click on the link for the seminary, and then on the link for Mosaic.

As always, I ask you to let us know how we're doing at feedback@osv.com.