Dreaming About the Pope: Reflections on Benedict XVI’s Visit to New York


[A Jesuit priest with a lifelong record of social activism, the Rev. Joseph E. Mulligan S.J. has worked in Nicaragua for more than 20 years. In 2004, he served three months in a Muscogee County jail, following acts of civil disobedience during a protest calling for the closure of the U.S. Army´s School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) at Ft. Benning, Ga. Among his other ministries in Latin America, Mulligan has dedicated himself to unravelling the mystery of Father James Carney, an American priest who disappeared in Honduras in 1983 after entering that country as a chaplain to a group of Honduran insurgents. When Pope Benedict XVI visited New York, I asked Fr. Mulligan for his thoughts on the pontiff’s visit. His response from Nicaragua just arrived.]


by Joseph E. Mulligan

On the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the U.S., many people remembered his strong words as Cardinal Ratzinger in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Speaking at a conference in Trieste, Italy, in September 2002, Ratzinger was asked if the war could be justified.

“In this situation, certainly not,” he replied. “There is the United Nations. It is the authority that should make the decisive choice. The choice must be made by the community of peoples, not a single power. The fact that the United Nations is seeking a way to avoid the war seems to me to demonstrate with sufficient proof that the damages which would result [from the war] are greater than the values it would seek to save.”

Ratzinger had also criticized the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war. “The concept of pre-emptive war does not appear in the Catechism,” he told the National Catholic Reporter.

Some of us hoped and dreamt that Ratzinger, now pope, would use the same specific and clear language to denounce the war to Bush’s face, or at least in one of his public addresses. Alas, political protocol prevailed over prophetic boldness.

In his address to the United Nations on April 18, the pope did say that the UN embodies aspirations for a “greater degree of international ordering” based on “binding international rules”and noted that “this is all the more necessary at a time when we experience the obvious paradox of a multilateral consensus that continues to be in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a few, whereas the world’s problems call for interventions in the form of collective action by the international community…..”

That “multilateral consensus” may be the world’s rejection of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (which later turned out to be based on two colossal lies) and/or the international agreement that the family of nations must take much more radical action against global warming than the U.S. agrees to, but the lack of specificity and explicitness in the pope’s statement deprived it of its prophetic sting.

The pontiff’s visit evoked dreams and visions in some of us of what he might say and what the papacy might be. While serving a 90-day sentence in 2004 for having “crossed the line” at Fort Benning, Ga., in a protest against the Army’s School of the Americas, I let my fantasies run wild and composed the following essay which came to mind again during Benedict’s visit:

Imagine this scenario.

The newly elected pope, who will take the name John XXIV, is due to arrive at 11 a.m. in St. Peter’s basilica for his first solemn Mass as pontiff. At 8 a.m. he and several friends are having breakfast with a family in a modest home in a Roman neighborhood. He then takes a walk through the neighborhood, shaking hands with the folks and exchanging blessings with them, taking the names of some beggars so he can arrange shelter for them later.

At 10 a.m. he walks over the bridge, through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds who are weeping for joy, and up to the basilica for the celebration. In his homily he quotes from the 1971 Synod of Bishops: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”

And he announces that the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador is henceforth to be revered as “Blessed,” one step before sainthood.

People soon begin to consider him another “Good Pope John” in reference to the beloved John XXIII who launched the Second Vatican Council.

Two years later he ordains Maria Gomez of Nicaragua to the priesthood and thanks her as he kneels before her for her priestly blessing.

When Maria celebrates her first Mass in her squatters’ settlement in Managua, the former president of the country arrives by public transportation and, without her usual bodyguards, walks the remaining two blocks to the cinder-block church.

Last year, on Human Rights Day, the pope offered Mass for all straight and gay couples, asking the Spirit of Love to strengthen their love and commitment.

Last week, John XXIV invited married men to consider taking a 3-year theology program in night school (instead of the current 4-year full-time program for celibate seminarians) which could lead to priestly ordination, and he asked married priests to return to active ministry if a bishop and local parish would offer them a “call.” He explained that “justice, as well as the right of Catholics to liturgical ministry, requires these changes in church law.”

Today the Vatican announced that John XXIV, in his upcoming visit to the Holy Land, will pray at the Western Wall with Jews and at the Dome of the Rock with Muslims on his way to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.

Imagine how these expressions of humble service, pastoral encouragement, and solidarity would thrill the people, especially the poor, the outcast, the unemployed, the victims of discrimination. It would be like Jesus proclaiming the “Good News to the poor” and “freedom to captives.”