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Peter Among Us

the front part of the Pope's limousine

I was not nervous at all, at least not until I saw that first limousine pull into the driveway. The day and the moment had finally arrived after these many months of preparation. Pope Benedict XVI was now here at The Catholic University of America. The students chanted and cheered as the automobile, adorned with the flags of the United States and the Vatican, made its way to the entrance of the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center. They had begun gathering eight hours earlier, lining up to get this glimpse of the Holy Father.

As the limousine door opened, I approached our special visitor. Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl was making his way alongside the entourage to join me, but the Holy Father was a little quicker than anyone anticipated. He turned immediately to the thousands of students on the lawn between the law school and “the Pryz” to wave to his newest friends. As the cheering continued, he turned to me, smiled and said, “Father, how have you been?” I felt immense joy as I said, “Your Holiness, I cannot thank you enough for being here with us at The Catholic University of America.”

Although the Holy Father’s purpose in coming here was much larger than CUA, the fact that our campus was part of the original plan for his trip to the United States was an honor beyond measure. He had been here before, in 1990, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when he came to address the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the neighboring Dominican House of Studies. And his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had also visited our campus, first as a cardinal and later — in 1979 — as pope. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had asked to address Catholic university and college presidents and other educational leaders at this, the national university of the Catholic Church. A papally chartered institution of higher education — the only one sponsored by the bishops of our country — CUA is certainly a most appropriate place to do that. And Pope Benedict XVI’s address was masterful, indeed.

The Holy Father began his visit, after greeting all of our assembled students, by meeting graduating senior Peter Osgood, who had won an essay contest on the topic “How Catholic Education Has Changed My Life.” Headed to medical school in the fall, Osgood asked the Pope to bless his hands — a touching moment for all of us who witnessed it. The Holy Father then turned quickly and entered the building to greet seminarians and formation faculty from the university’s seminary, Theological College. When I introduced the group to him, the Pope said, “So many! And so beautifully dressed,” referring to the sea of Roman collars.

His Holiness took the elevator upstairs to greet some special guests and the educational leaders assembled there. I was privileged to have some moments alone with him before processing into the Great Room for his address. Our conversation is a truly moving subject for another day.

When the Holy Father got into the popemobile to depart campus, I saw a thousand tears welling up in the eyes of those who saw him and to whom he waved and smiled as we sang “Regina Coeli.” For a Catholic university, it does not get much better than this. For The Catholic University of America, the fact that “Peter” chose to walk among us — if only for a short while — is a dramatic and awesome reminder of the unique identity, mission and responsibility that belong to us. May we ever be faithful to our name and all that it represents!

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Revised: August 2008

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