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U.S. Ambassador's View of Pope Benedict

Interview With Francis Rooney

ROME, MARCH 23, 2006 (Zenit) - Benedict XVI has so far shown a "great and open pastoral ability" in addition to theological rigor, says the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

In this interview with us, Ambassador Francis Rooney talked about the first year of this pontificate, the forthcoming consistory this Friday, and interreligious dialogue with Islam, among other issues.

Q: The consistory will produce two new U.S. cardinals. What does that tell you?

Rooney: This is an important moment in the papacy of Benedict XVI, and also for America.

We are pleased to see Archbishops William Levada and Sean O'Malley elevated to the College of Cardinals; though we were not completely surprised given their positions within the Church's hierarchy.

They are men of fine reputation, who have worked long and hard on behalf of the Church, often in difficult circumstances and on very complicated issues. We read their appointment as a vote of confidence by the Holy Father in the Catholic Church in America.

Q: The consistory comes near the end of the first year of this pontificate. What has struck you the most about Benedict XVI?

Rooney: Pope Benedict XVI has surprised much of the world, turning out to be quite a different person than media headlines portrayed him to be nearly a year ago.

Media had focused on his reputation as an enforcer of doctrine; but in addition to his theological rigor, he has displayed a great and open pastoral ability and has shown himself to be a gifted teacher, consistently clear and bold in his communications.

On the occasions that I have met with the Holy Father, he was generous and appreciative of the U.S.-Holy See relationship. The world has warmed to him, and has been struck by the power of his mind and the gentle clarity of his faith.

Q: What do you see as the main priorities of this pontificate so far?

Rooney: The Holy Father has been consistent and vocal in his calls to put an end to terrorism and killing in the name of God. The United States supports him in this effort.

The terrorists who are setting off bombs in mosques and markets in Iraq share the same hateful ideology as the terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, those who blew up commuters in London and Madrid, and those who murdered tourists in Bali, guests at a wedding in Amman, Jordan, and workers in Riyadh.

In the war on terror we face a global enemy of humanity. The Holy Father understands that. In the long run, the best way to defeat terrorism is to protect and promote human dignity and spread the hope of freedom.

Pope Benedict has also done much to advance and encourage interreligious dialogue. Just last week, he called for Christians, Muslims and Jews to work together for peace and justice. It is our great hope to support his efforts in our own work at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.

And in another theme close to the work of my embassy, the Holy Father has spoken out eloquently about the need to protect the most vulnerable of our world, directly mentioning the scourge of modern-day slavery: trafficking in persons.

Nearly one year into the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, it remains crystal clear that the United States is fortunate to work with the Holy See in addressing these critical issues of our day.

Q: What possible areas of cooperation exist between the United States and the Vatican? For example, in the recent past there has been cooperation on issues such as human trafficking and food aid.

Rooney: Mutual respect and common goals have always underpinned the relationship between the United States and the Holy See.

Today, working with Pope Benedict XVI, I am very confident that we will succeed in our determined efforts to advance peace, justice, freedom, economic opportunity and democracy in the world.

To that end, it is my goal to further enhance collaboration with the Holy See in addressing terrorism, global hunger, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, migration issues and the trafficking of human beings across international borders.

In my meetings with the Holy Father, and in conversations with high-ranking members of the Curia, there is always conversation about our continued partnership to promote tolerance and human dignity. I repeat, the United States is fortunate to work with the Holy See in these endeavors.

Q: What could the United States learn from the Vatican regarding interreligious dialogue and relations with Islam?

Rooney: It's worth mentioning again that the Holy Father recently spoke to the need for outreach among Jews, Christians and Muslims.

He called for the followers of each of those religions to work together to promote peace and justice in the world, and has consistently urged religious leaders to lead the way by reconciling conflicts and divisions through dialogue and active solidarity.

He also said that greater attention needs to be given to teaching respect for God, for religions and their symbols, and for holy sites and places of worship. These are timely and important messages in today's world, as we confront a form of terrorism that kills in the name of God.

The Holy See and the United States both see dialogue with Islam as a key issue.

Religious tensions do exist between Christians and Muslims in some Islamic countries and the denial of religious liberty in these situations is a painful reality, but the United States is determined to address them, and committed to working with the Holy See to enhance our efforts wherever possible.

Q: The Bush administration has tended to be very charitable toward religious groups. It's also made much headway in social welfare to assist families. Could you comment on this -- why it is; what it means -- especially in reflecting Catholic social teaching?

Rooney: From his first term, President Bush has worked closely with faith-based organizations.

He saw early on the critical contribution they could make in addressing some of the most pressing issues facing America. He has continued to reach out to those faith-based groups that offer so many critically needed social services. He refers to them as America's "armies of compassion."

Earlier this month the President addressed a National Conference on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in Washington. He acknowledged the progress that has been made, but underlined that much more has yet to be done to give faith-based social service programs equal footing with secular nonprofits in federal, state and corporate grant-making.

And he's putting his money where his mouth is. Last fiscal year 10.9% of the federal funding for social services from seven government departments went to faith-based organizations. The grants to such organizations amounted to more than $2.1 billion out of nearly $20 billion in total grants. That represents an increase of 21% since 2003.

Supporting faith-based organizations that offer an array of much needed social services has been a priority for President Bush, and will continue to be.

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