The White House gave Pope Benedict XVI a 21-gun salute, a fife-and-drum corps in Revolutionary War attire, the Marine Band, the soprano Kathleen Battle singing the Lord's Prayer accompanied by a harpist, as well as a spectacularly beautiful spring day on the South Lawn. Thousands of well-wishers sang "Happy Birthday" to the Pontiff, led by Ms. Battle herself.
Patiently waiting for almost three hours, everyone from political leaders and high school honor guards to wounded soldiers (who were greeted with applause entering and leaving the grounds), Knights of Columbus members in full plumage, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts seemed to relish the splendor of the occasion. The day had the liveliness, pageantry and humanity of a Medieval pilgrimage.
The Holy See's National Anthem was played, back-to-back with our own. Appropriately, American and Vatican flags were handed out in tandem. Lovely young White House aides wore Vatican colors, fitting for the season. My wife and I were seated close to a veritable army of photographers with massive bazooka-sized digital cameras, locked and loaded for the great event.
College students from Texas, Chinese-Americans from Pennsylvania, and just about every priest east of the Mississippi were on hand. The comforting sounds of Air Force jets patrolling the skies were audible, and several security men with binoculars surveyed the perimeter throughout the proceedings.
I haven't felt this good about being a Roman Catholic in America since I first heard that George Washington, the wise and good, banned the Continental Army from burning of the pope in effigy on Guy Fawkes Day!
BUT BEYOND THE POMP and circumstance and conviviality, President Bush and Pope Benedict engaged in a serious dialogue in their short, substantive speeches. Together they outlined the common ground which exists between our democratic republic and the truths that the Catholic Church believes are embodied in natural law. These two men described the interdependence between freedom and virtue, order and liberty.
President Bush welcomed the Pope with the words of St. Augustine, Pax Tecum, and told him that "Here in America you'll find a nation of prayer" where millions of Americans "approach our Maker on bended knee, seeking His grace and giving thanks for the many blessings He bestows on us."
Here the Pope will find a nation of compassion, one "that welcomes faith in the public square," founded on an appeal to the "law of nature, and of nature's God."
"We believe in religious liberty," said the President. "We also believe that a love for freedom and a common moral law are written into every human heart, and that these constitute the firm foundation on which any successful free society must be built."
The President told Pope Benedict that he will also find a nation that is "fully modern, yet guided by ancient and eternal truths" which is simultaneously innovative, creative and dynamic but also religious. "In our nation, faith and reason coexist in harmony," he said.
He applauded the Pope's messages of hope and that God is love, which "is the surest way to save men from 'falling prey to the teaching of fanaticism and terrorism.'"
FOR HIS PART, Pope Benedict echoed the President's sentiments in recognizing 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." The framers "proclaimed the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed with in alienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and nature's god."
The Holy Father insisted that "Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility."
"The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good, and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate," he said.
But freedom also requires courage to engage in civic life, said the Pope, "and to bring one's deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate."
This conversation between President and Pope reflected a consensus between two public figures that many of us believe existed at the founding of the nation. That these words seem so bold and challenging reflects a general confusion in American society over the legitimate role that religion plays in its political life.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the great observer of the early American republic, once opined that this country would one day be either entirely Unitarian or Catholic. Given the blessings of our Constitution, Unitarians need not fear Catholics, and Catholics can feel confident that they will be free to engage the culture and the political process with the conviction that their "ancient and eternal truths" are as American as apple pie.
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