Newsflash Archives > Obama's Gift
The city of Rome is waiting for the meeting today of US President Barack Obama with Pope Benedict XVI
By Dr. Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome
"True humanism in Christianity... true Christianity — we repeat — is the sacrifice of self for others, because of Christ, because of God. It is shown by signs; it is manifested in deeds. Christianity is sensitive to the suffering and oppression and sorrow of others, to poverty, to all human needs, the first of which is truth." —Pope Paul VI, Homily at the Mass for the Canonization of St. John Neumann, June 19, 1977
In about three hours, US President Barack Obama will arrive in the Vatican to meet Pope Benedict XVI.
The leader of the world's greatest temporal power will carry a gift for the leader of the world's greatest spiritual power.
He will drive in his limousine into Vatican City, and into the Cortile San Damaso (photo, left, taken in 1930), the little square at the very heart of the Vatican.
He will get out of his car (parked more or less where the single car in this photo is parked), go into the door at the far end of the square, and, accompanied by American Archbishop James Harvey, the head of the papal household, take the elevator up to the fourth floor.
He will walk down a marble corridor to the Pope's private library, overlooking St. Peter's Square (the third window from the right on the top floor in this photo).
The Pope will greet him, and Obama will greet the Pope, and hand him a gift.
What gift will that be?
A relic from St. John Neumann (1811-1860), the first American saint.
Who was St. John Neumann?
He only lived 48 years, so he died when he was not much older than Obama, who is now 47.
He was born in Bohemia, and decided in his 20s to come to America as a missionary.
He arrived in New York on June 6, 1836 with one suit of clothes and a dollar in his pocket.
He joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, commonly known as the Redemptorists, in Pittsburgh, then came to the attention of Archbishop Kenrick of Baltimore who suggested to Rome that Neumann be appointed as the Bishop of Philadelphia. Neumann wrote a letter to the Vatican requesting that another man be chosen.
However, Pope Pius IX decided he was, by far, the best person for the job and declared him a Bishop in 1852. The poor people affectionately called him “Our Little Bishop” because of his short stature. He was five feet and two inches tall.
The poor, especially the new immigrants, loved him.
Among Bishop Neumann’s accomplishments were the organization of a Catholic diocesan school system. He had many new schools and churches built in his diocese.
Bishop Neumann died of a sudden stroke as was doing errands on January 5, 1860. On the day of his death he told Father Urban, the visiting Redemptorist Superior, that he had a strange feeling about today and then added "One must always be ready. Death comes when and where God wills it.”
He was beatified 1963 and canonized in 1977.
Here is a link to a biography of Neumann
When Pope Paul VI canonized Neumann in 1977, he had this to say about the saint:
"We ask ourselves today: what is the meaning of this extraordinary event, the meaning of this canonization? It is the celebration of holiness. And what is holiness? It is human perfection, human love raised up to its highest level in Christ, in God...
"He helped children to satisfy their need for truth, their need for Christian doctrine, for the teaching of Jesus in their lives. He did this both by catechetical instruction and by promoting, with relentless energy, the Catholic school system in the United States.
"John Neumann bore the image of Christ. He experienced, in his innermost being, the need to proclaim by word and example the wisdom and power of God, and to preach the crucified Christ. And in the Passion of the Lord he found strength and the inspiration of his ministry: Passio Christi conforta me!
"But to accomplish his task, love was necessary. And love meant giving; love meant effort; love meant sacrifice. And in his sacrifice, Bishop Neumann’s service was complete. He led his people along the paths of holiness. He was indeed an effective witness, in his generation, to God’s love for his Church and the world...
"Our ceremony today is indeed the celebration of holiness. At the same time, it is a prophetic anticipation-for the Church, for the United States, for the world-of a renewal in love: love for God, love for neighbor.
"And in this vital charity, beloved sons and daughters, let us go forward together, to build up a real civilization of love."
I repeat: "And in this vital charity, beloved sons and daughters, let us go forward together, to build up a real civilization of love."
The Pope and the President will have a scheduled time together of about 20 minutes, face to face, with no translators.
The Pope speaks excellent English. I have spoken with him many times over the years, usually in Italian, but sometimes in English and German. His English is excellent, although he prefers either German or Italian.
He does speak English with his German accent, but Obama should be able to understand him well, I think.
And the Pope undefrstand English perfectly.
So the two should have no problem speaking together.
But what will they say?
If I were to guess, I would say they will begin with the "latest news." What is that?
It is the G8 meeting on the world economic crisis, and the Pope's new social encyclical, Veritas in Caritate, released on July 7, three days ago (copies of the encyclical were given to all the leaders meeting in Aquila, Italy, at the G8 summit).
Can we imagine what the two men will say?
Perhaps we can, in hopes of understanding what the fundamental natire of the conversation will be.
We know that many issues may be raised, but what will be the essence of the meeting?
Perhaps Obama will say something like this:
"Your Holiness, as you know, I am coming directly from our important and constructive meeting in Aquila on the world economic crisis, and I wanted to tell you personally how happy I was to have the contribution of your encyclical, your statement of the underlying principles which should guide us as we strive to build a more just and prosperous world.
"It is a lofty vision of social justice which I will study and take into consideration."
A way for the President to "break the ice" by saying something nice about the Pope's work and ideas, without saying anything controversial.
Something innocuous, but profound at the same time.
And then the Pope might reply:
"Thank you very much, Mr. President, for your kind words."
And then the Pope may pause for a moment.
Then he might then say something like this:
"I want to tell you personally that you are in my prayers. I pray that you will find the strength and wisdom to carry out your task."
Something like that, perhaps.
Something very positive, to make clear to Obama that the Pope wishes him well, that he understands that Obama's responsibilities as president of the US are very great, and, in human terms, a heavy burden.
(If you will look closely at the photographs of Obama in recent months, you will see that his hair is rapidly turning grey after less than half a year in office.)
But what will the two men then say? Will they talk about global politics, about Israel, Gaza, Iran, Iraq, and such things?
I have no idea, but, personally, I doubt it. Those are matters Obama might possibly speak about with Cardinal Bertone, the Secretary of State, but not with the Pope.
One can only speculate, of course — and perhaps specualtion is unwise.
But it does not seem impossible that the two will organize the rest of their conversation around two main "threads": the areas in their vision of human life which they share in common, and the areas in that vision on which they disagree.
In this regard, it is correct to say, I think, that the Pope does agree with some aspects of the political and social vision Obama has articulated.
I believe he will make this point clear to the president.
There will be an attempt to find "common ground" where common ground is possible.
But I also believe the Pope may take this opportunity to point out to the President, in a quiet, thoughtful way, that there is nothing ignoble about reflecting once again, even in mid-life, on the great moral questions of human existence.
And I think Benedict may use the opportunity provided by his new encyclical to raise at least two fundamental issues: the issue of abortion, and the issue of genetic manipulation of embryos.
For, in his new encyclical, the Pope makes quite clear that a truly just society, and a truly coherent humanism, must take a radical position in defense of the dignity of human life.
I think the Pope will not avoid this delicate issue, because I think, for the Pope, it is fundamental.
The defense of the life of the unborn is something deeply rooted, not only in the Christian tradition, but also in the religious traditions of all mankind. It has been rejected only by the modern secular age during the past 50 or 75 years. I think the Pope will make this point.
So, it is my view that Pope may, at some point in a conversation — which I believe will begin by emphasizing friendship, prayer, and mutual support — say something like this:
"I am gratified to know that you have received my encyclical, and have been reading it. I realize that is difficult for you to find even a moment to read such a text. But if you could take a moment to look at my arguments about the use of technology, and how a wrong use, a reckless use of this technology can harm all of us, and all future generations, perhaps you might find there arguments worthy of consideration."
Something like that.
A proposal that Obama consider seriously the arguments set forth, for example, in Chapter 74 of the encyclical.
Here is ths text of that chapter in full:
"74. A particularly crucial battleground in today's cultural struggle between the supremacy of technology and human moral responsibility is the field of bioethics, where the very possibility of integral human development is radically called into question. In this most delicate and critical area, the fundamental question asserts itself forcefully: is man the product of his own labours or does he depend on God? Scientific discoveries in this field and the possibilities of technological intervention seem so advanced as to force a choice between two types of reasoning: reason open to transcendence or reason closed within immanence. We are presented with a clear either/ or. Yet the rationality of a self-centred use of technology proves to be irrational because it implies a decisive rejection of meaning and value. It is no coincidence that closing the door to transcendence brings one up short against a difficulty: how could being emerge from nothing, how could intelligence be born from chance? Faced with these dramatic questions, reason and faith can come to each other's assistance. Only together will they save man. Entranced by an exclusive reliance on technology, reason without faith is doomed to flounder in an illusion of its own omnipotence. Faith without reason risks being cut off from everyday life."
In short — and of course I do not know this — I expect the Pope's meeting with President Obama will have two themes, two "valences," to speak in chemical terms: a focus on the vision that the two men share, and a discussion, or at least the proposal of a discussion, on the question of transcendence, of true reason, of the ultimate "irrationality" of the self-centered use of technology, and the neglect of the defense of the right to life of the most vulnerable.
In this sense, the conversation could be one of the most profound Obama could engage in, because it will raise the fundamental questions of human life, in the Apostolic Palace, with the Successor of Peter...
Here are selections from an article in the Washington Post about Obama's gift.
The Scoop on Obama's Gift to Pope Tomorrow
By William Wan
What do you get for a man who already possesses leadership over one-sixth of the world's population not to mention the highest earthly authority in the church?
When President Obama's staff went searching for the perfect gift for Pope Benedict XVI, they called Louis DiCocco, owner of a religious gift shop in Philadelphia, for advice....
At first, DiCocco suggested an antique chalice his family had in their shop that could be traced back to the 1920s -- a parish priest style gold-plated cup with a highly engraved base. Written around the mouth of the chalice were the words, "Sanctus, Sanctus, Santus," meaning "holy, holy, holy."
The cup had history and character but they kept looking.
DiCocco reached out to friends and contacts in the American Catholic community. Some of them at the Redemptorist order mentioned a sacred relic from the saint, John Neumann, in their possession.
The Redemptorists, an order of Catholic priests and brothers that originated in 1732 at Naples, traced their roots in the U.S. to 1842, when Neumann became the first Redemptorist to profess vows in America. Neumann, helped build up the U.S. Catholic school and parish system and ministered especially to German immigrants in Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
The Redemptorist order had a stole that had been draped on top of his remains at a Philadelphia shrine to Neumann, who was declared a saint in 1977. The stole, a long scarf-like garment that is worn around a priest's neck, had lain with Neumann's body for 18 years until it was removed in 2007.
When DiCocco suggested the stole to the state department, "it was just kind of a no-brainer," he said. "It was just the right touch of American Catholic history and relevance. I mean, here was this saint, an immigrant who came to America and did so much beautiful work."
Here is a link to the complete story.
Here are excerpts from a useful background report by Cindy Wooden.
Presidents and popes: Obama is 12th US president to visit Vatican
By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When President Barack Obama steps into the pope's private library in the Vatican July 10, he will become only the 12th U.S. president to do so...
The fact that Obama is coming to the Vatican directly from the Group of Eight meeting in L'Aquila, Italy, and is leaving immediately afterward to fly to Ghana means timing is tight.
The time constraints mean the Vatican and the White House have not made plans for an exchange of formal speeches -- an optional part of papal receptions of presidents.
But there is always time for an exchange of gifts.
The Baltimore province of the Redemptorists announced that it had given Obama a stole that had been placed on the remains of St. John Neumann, a 19th-century Redemptorist and the first male naturalized U.S. citizen to become a saint. Obama will give the stole to the pope.
While the gifts presidents and prime ministers give popes are quite varied -- but tend heavily toward old books, statues and vases -- Pope Benedict always gives heads of state a gold medal marking the current year of his pontificate...
In former U.S. President George W. Bush's three Vatican visits to Pope John Paul II, he presented an 1849 first edition of an anthology of American poetry; a silver medallion with a hand-painted image of Mary; and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Bush met Pope Benedict at the Vatican twice. In 2007, he gave the pope a walking stick into which the Ten Commandments had been carved by a formerly homeless man. And in 2008, the pope and the president gave each other photographs taken during Pope Benedict's April 2008 visit to the White House.
Some may find it interesting that Obama, who is not Catholic, chose a very Catholic gift for the pope while Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, a Catholic, gave the pope a digital video recorder during a similar audience July 7...
The Obama visit is considered private, but with a bit of flair. He will be met in the St. Damasus Courtyard by U.S. Archbishop James Harvey, prefect of the papal household, and a small contingent of Swiss Guards.
In a reversal of the usual order of things, the president will meet with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, before going to meet the pope.
After a private discussion with Pope Benedict, Obama will introduce his wife, Michelle, and daughters, Sasha and Malia, to the pope.
A group photo will be taken, then the pope and president will exchange gifts and the first family will leave for the airport.
Here is a link to the complete story.
In this brief report below, the Australian Prime Minister, who met the Pope yesterday, is reported to have said to the Pope, "I'm reading your encyclical."
It was partly because I read of these words that I concluded that President Obama could possibly open his meeting with Benedict with similar words, allowing the Pope the opportunity to repsond as I have imagined above.
World leaders attending G-8 summit squeeze in visits to pope
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Group of Eight summit in L'Aquila, Italy, offered some world leaders the opportunity to squeeze in a visit to meet with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. The pope then used the occasion to present leaders with a special copy of his first social encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate" ("Charity in Truth"), which the Vatican released July 7, the day before the G-8 summit began.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd met with the pope in a 25-minute closed-door meeting July 9. Australia is not part of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, but was among the other countries Italy invited. Rudd, who was raised Catholic but attends an Anglican church, told the pope, "I'm reading your encyclical." Rudd has written about the role of a Christian in contemporary politics and wrote in a 2005 essay that he sees the Gospel as "an exhortation to social action."
In a customary exchange of gifts, the pope gave Rudd a signed, white leather-bound copy of his new encyclical and a pen shaped like a column of the famous baldacchino, or canopy over the main altar, in St. Peter's Basilica done by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Rudd gave the pope a black leather-bound copy of the Australian government's apology to Aborigines for the wrongs committed against them.
The Homily of Pope Paul VI
Here is a link to the complete text of Pope Paul VI's homily at the canonization Mass for St. John Neumann.
The Prayers for the Feast of St. John Neumann
Here are the English translations of the prayers for January 5, the Feast of St. John Neumann (photo), Bishop and Confessor:
O God, who willed blessed John, thy confessor and bishop, to shine in pastoral works; graciously grant that, following his teachings and examples, we might obtain eternal life.
Look down favorably, O Lord, upon the sacrifice we offer in honor of blessed John, bishop: and enkindle in us the fire of thy love with which he burned.
Refreshed, O Lord, by the Precious Body and Blood of thy Son, we humbly implore thee: that by the merits of blessed John, we who followed him as a shepherd of shepherds on earth might arrive at eternal pastures..
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