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Pittsburgh bishop on Pope Benedict’s visit: We will be ‘witnesses’ to papal history

PITTSBURGH, Pa. (Pittsburgh Catholic) – COL Editor’s Note: Pittsburgh Catholic editor William Cone recently interviewed Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik regarding his impressions on Pope Benedict XVI and his April visit to the United States.

Pittsburgh Catholic: You have had the opportunity to meet with Pope Benedict XVI. What are your impressions of him personally?

Bishop Zubik: Pope Benedict is an intensely “connecting” person. The times that I have met him, even if the conversations were ever so brief, he focused his entire attention on me. He does this with every person that he speaks with. I have also observed him at his public audiences.

He does the same thing. He makes the rounds of people who are there, and it takes him every bit of an hour to 90 minutes. That is one of his special gifts. He makes people feel very, very special.

As a public person, he is without question one of the brightest leaders, if not the brightest leader, in the world today. He astounds me how he can take what might be complicated theology and translate it in ways that people can easily understand. In terms of the delivery of his messages at the general audiences, or his encyclical or his books, he has a style that can easily appeal to human experience. He really reflects not simply that he is the shepherd of the universal church, but he is an outstanding teacher as well.

In his encyclical, “Spe Salvi,” he describes how we have our large hopes and our small hopes. But that the only true hope is God himself, who is our anchor. That’s a beautiful testimony from a person who is a great teacher.

Pittsburgh Catholic: What should the Holy Father’s pastoral visit to the United States mean to the Catholic population?

Bishop Zubik: First and foremost, there is our connection with Peter. In my Easter homily this year, I spoke about how, by an act of providence, I was in the front row of St. Peter’s when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict. I was with a small group of people — only a few thousand — that were gathered, wondering if the assembled cardinals had elected a new pope. We were watching the right side of the basilica, looking for the traditional white smoke that was the sign of a new pope. When the smoke came out — and I have heard it was the same for those watching on television — we couldn’t actually tell if the smoke was white. We looked up to the left side of the basilica, staring toward the bells, knowing that if they began to ring we had a new Holy Father.

And the bells started to peal. As a few thousand of us listened and watched, the square in front of St. Peter’s began to fill. It seemed that in only moments, what had been a few thousand of us became several hundred thousand people — all gathered to hear the news of the new pope. The crowd roared as Pope Benedict was introduced, and came out on the balcony.

There were other times in my life when a new pope had been elected. I remember as a small boy when Pope John XXIII was elected in October of 1958, and then, five years later, just at the end of my eighth grade, when Paul VI was elected in June of 1963. Then John Paul I in August of 1978 and Pope John Paul II in October of the same year.

In each of those instances I was a spectator. But when Pope Benedict was elected, I was blessed to be a witness. I was there in St. Peter’s Square to witness what was happening.

When Pope Benedict arrives in the United States next week, many of our fellow citizens will have the opportunity to become witnesses. They will be there in Washington and in New York in the presence of our Holy Father.

But I also think for anybody who is going to be following his travels in the United States through television, radio, newspapers and the Internet, it will quickly become apparent that he is a universal pastor. That is why it was so important for Pope John Paul II to go to over 100 nations — to show that he is a universal pastor. This is the connection, this is the presence of Peter among us.

Pittsburgh Catholic: As we saw with Pope John Paul II and the many countries that he visited, these pastoral visits are not only to the Catholic population, but visits to the whole population.

Bishop Zubik: He is not here solely for the Catholic community, not here just to meet with the president or various delegates from our government, the United Nations or even from the church. Pope Benedict will be here to visit every living soul in America, Catholic and non-Catholic, Christian and non-Christian, believer and non-believer. He is our pastor, the most recognizable leader worldwide. And we will all have the opportunity to be witnesses to that.

In a very small, small way, I am touched by this myself. One of the things that surprised me since I came back to Pittsburgh is when I will meet someone, perhaps someone who is Jewish, and that person will say to me, “You’re our bishop.” It’s an intriguing statement that shows that people really connect with God through the visible head of a local church here in Pittsburgh.

Think how much greater that is for the pope. He is really recognized as a universal pastor of the entire world. I read recently that fully 70 percent of Americans view the Holy Father as a spiritual leader important in their own lives. He is really recognized as a universal pastor of the entire world. There is no religious leader who looms larger than the pope. That means his message is for Catholics and non-Catholics, as well as non-Christians.

I also think many people look to him because they are really eager for us to be able to have conversations with each other. Catholics conversing with fellow Christians; Catholics with non-Christians; and Catholics with non-believers. The Holy Father becomes a sign of that “connectedness” with all peoples when he comes to our country.

Pittsburgh Catholic: The media has been guessing about what he’s going to say to America. Do you have any idea of the themes that you think he will pick up on?

Bishop Zubik: I would expect that he’s going to build on his encyclical, “Spe Salvi.” I think he will stress the importance of us being a people of hope. I’m also anticipating that he will speak about the importance of bringing conviction to our faith.

Education in the faith will be a part of his message, particularly when he speaks to those who teach our Catholic faith. When he meets with Catholic university presidents, he will no doubt praise academic freedom, but stress that academic freedom doesn’t compromise what you teach as the Catholic Church.

I think his message will be strong. I’m sure he’s going to advocate very strongly for working for peace. That’s certainly been the message that Pope John Paul II spoke to as well as Pope Benedict.

Pittsburgh Catholic: You’re going to be there when he meets with the bishops. What do you think he’s going to say to the bishops?

Bishop Zubik: I am expecting him to encourage us. He knows that we are all struggling with a secular culture that sometimes chooses to remain deaf to the good news of Jesus. He will speak to the importance of vocations, the challenge of men responding to the call to be priests, deacons and brothers, and women to be sisters. But he will speak to the important witness of the family unit, too. He will also certainly speak to how important it is for us to be people of prayer, people of the Spirit.

Pittsburgh Catholic: In what other events will you be participating?

Bishop Zubik: Just last Friday, I received an invitation from President and Mrs. Bush to be present at the White House for the official welcome of Pope Benedict on the South Lawn on the morning of April 16. I am blown away by the invitation. You can be assured that I’ll be there and representing southwestern Pennsylvania and our diocese. I will also be there for the evening of April 16 when our Holy Father will celebrate evening prayer with all of us as bishops in the crypt church of the national shrine. I will be concelebrating Mass with the other bishops and our Holy Father the next morning at Nationals Park. And then we will all be joining with him at a reception on Friday evening in New York. On Saturday morning, the bishops will concelebrate at the Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And we will be there for the Sunday afternoon farewell Mass at Yankee Stadium.

It will be a wonderful time. I’m just honored to be a part of it all. I’m going to be praying with the Holy Father for all the people of our six-county diocese. When I have a chance to speak with the Holy Father personally, as each bishop will have a chance to do, on the evening of April 16, I’ll be sharing with him the prayers of the church of Pittsburgh as well as our promise of loyalty to him in unity with the universal church.

Pittsburgh Catholic: Representatives from the diocese will take part in just about every public event during this visit. What do you hope they will take home with them from those experiences?

Bishop Zubik: They are going to come away excited about our faith. There is something about being in the presence of the pope that is mesmerizing. I have been in the presence of the pope between 15 and 20 times, and it never becomes routine. It never becomes second hand.

The majority of people who are going from Pittsburgh to Washington are our youth. They are so alive and are so excited about this. And I think they are going to come back deeply impressed and be able to share that with their peers.

Pittsburgh Catholic: What do you hope that the papal visit will mean to the Diocese of Pittsburgh?

Bishop Zubik: I have said so many times that I think we are in a new Pentecost — not on the verge of a new Pentecost, but in the middle of it. I know this. I have been to over a hundred parishes since coming back in Pittsburgh. I see the Spirit in every one of them. There is a spiritual hunger that’s clearly there. I think the papal visit is only going to fire us up even more.

As we prepare for the Year of St. Paul and our Year of Eucharistic Adoration starting in just a few short months, and as we take a look at all the challenges that we’re facing as the church of Pittsburgh, we are becoming much more aware of the presence of God in our lives. The Holy Father’s visit can only serve to enhance this — not just the need for God’s presence in our lives, but also our awareness of how much God is present in our lives.


This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Pittsburgh Catholic(, official newspaper of the Dicoese of Pittsburgh,Pa.



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