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Recalling Pope Benedict’s Only Trip to U.S. as Pontiff

Pope Benedict XVI greets the audience after arriving for a Young Catholics Youth Rally held at Saint Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers April 19, 2008. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — The April 2008 visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the U.S., which included a three-day trip to New York, turned out to be his only journey to this country as pontiff. But according to people who remember it, the visit, while brief, left a lasting impression.

Among the memorable moments in New York was a speech at the United Nations that focused on human rights, Masses at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Yankee Stadium, and a visit to ground zero.

Ed Wilkinson, editor emeritus of The Tablet, recalled the ground zero stop as moving and memorable.

“People’s sensitivities were still raw. It was 2008. It’s only seven years after what happened at the World Trade Center,” he said. “To see him going down there and to be kneeling down and praying for those who had died that day, it was a very moving time. And for me, that was the most moving part of the trip.”

Pope Benedict’s trip to the U.S., which took place April 15-20, began in Washington, D.C. The pontiff landed at Andrews Air Force Base, where he was greeted by President George W. Bush — the first time a U.S. president went to the base to greet a foreign dignitary. Presidents usually wait at the White House for a visiting dignitary to arrive and greet them there.

The following day, April 16, Bush welcomed Pope Benedict to the White House and hosted a state dinner for him. In between the welcoming ceremony and the state dinner, the pontiff visited the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and addressed U.S. bishops.

His itinerary on April 17 included celebrating Mass at Nationals Park, addressing educators at Catholic University of America, and meeting with representatives of different religions at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center at Catholic University. 

“He also met with five young people of different religions. Each presented him with a gift. He was so gracious and kind to them,” said Diocese of Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop James Massa, who at the time was executive director of the Ecumenical and Interreligious Committee for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In an emotional highlight of the trip, Pope Benedict met on April 17 with survivors of clergy sex abuse. The meeting took place at the residence of the papal nuncio.

“When the Holy Father came, and he met with the victims, it was a sense that we were acknowledging the fact that this was a very harmful time,” Wilkinson said. “It was a very sinful act by some of the members of the clergy. And the Holy Father was very emphatic. He said that anybody who had committed some kind of sexual abuse should not be a priest.”

After three days in the nation’s capital, Pope Benedict arrived in New York on April 18, touching down at Kennedy Airport. Since the airport is located in Queens, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, the leader of the Diocese of Brooklyn at that time, officially greeted him.

“It was the first time I was asked as a bishop to greet the pope,” recalled Bishop DiMarzio, who was named Bishop of Brooklyn five years earlier. He remembered the pontiff as “such a gentle, kind person” who “would do anything that was asked of him.”

The role the diocese played in the New York portion of the pope’s trip was limited since most of the activities during the trip took place in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Yonkers.  

“And that’s what Brooklyn’s about. We get the arrival and departure because we have Kennedy Airport,” he explained.

One of the highlights of Pope Benedict’s visit included a historic stop at the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan on April 18, a memorable moment for the German pope, who was a boy when Hitler rose to power.

“It was the eve of Passover, which made it even more significant,” Bishop Massa said.

“It wasn’t something anyone here had arranged,” Bishop DiMarzio said of Pope Benedict’s unannounced visit to the synagogue, adding that the pontiff “was known to be interreligious.”   

Pope Benedict traveled up to St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers on April 19 to meet with a group of disabled children.

Bishop DiMarzio has fond memories of that encounter, which took place in the seminary’s chapel. The bishop had arranged for a wheelchair-bound girl whom he had baptized as a baby to be among those meeting with the pope.

“She was a teenager by then and completely paralyzed. And that was wonderful that I was able to get her to go with her mother and father,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “I just never forgot that opportunity that they had to meet the pope. The pope blessed every one of them. And his kindness was very evident.”

Pope Benedict also attended a youth rally on the seminary’s grounds, featuring a Mass and performance by American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson.

Bishop Massa began teaching at the seminary four years after the papal visit. 

“I found that the memory of the visit was still fresh in the minds of the faculty. That’s the impact that it had,” said Bishop Massa, who is now the rector of St. Joseph’s.

The visit to ground zero and the Mass at Yankee Stadium took place on April 20, the last day of Pope Benedict’s visit.

When the pope arrived at the stadium to celebrate Mass in front of 57,000 people, “you got a sense of the immensity of the event,” Wilkinson said. “The Holy Father was waving to the cheering crowd; he was very well accepted.”   

The pontiff left the U.S. from Kennedy Airport, but not before a departure ceremony at the airport attended by an estimated 3,000 people.

Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, were among those who were at Kennedy Airport to see the pope off.

“The departure was like a big party,” Wilkinson recalled. “It was a public event, and the Diocese of Brooklyn was in charge of sending him off after his trip. There was a big hangar. People in the Diocese of Brooklyn were given priority tickets. Every parish in the diocese received tickets. 

“There was a lot of singing and a lot of music playing.”