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A Distinguished Panel reflects on the implications of the visit and the measure of the man who occupies the chair of Peter.

NEW YORK (CNS) - Pope Benedict XVI will visit the United Nations April 18 as "a beacon of peace," Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican's U.N. nuncio, said April 9 at Columbia University's Earl Hall.

The pope "will say that might doesn't make right, (that) our future must be based on universal truth and common peace for humanity," the archbishop told an audience of 250 people.

"I've been besieged with questions of what the pope will say at the U.N.," he said. "I don't mind the questions though. It's proof that people are interested in what the pope has to say to the world."

The archbishop was one of four panelists who discussed the pontiff's teachings and their relevance to American culture.

The event, which had as its theme "Only Something Infinite Will Suffice," was co-sponsored by the Crossroads Cultural Center, which is a local project of Communion and Liberation, and Columbia University's Catholic campus ministry.

Archbishop Migliore said the event's theme "puts everything into perspective."

The other panelists were Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, theologian, author and columnist; Supreme Knight Carl Anderson of the Knights of Columbus; Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of the journal First Things; and David Schindler, who is dean of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and editor in chief of Communio.

Father Neuhaus suggested the best way to understand the pope is as an Augustinian.

"St. Augustine's philosophy is best described as an emphatically human experience which aspires to God," he said.

"Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas or a moral system. Christianity is an encounter, a love story. ... This is what has shaped (then-Cardinal Joseph) Ratzinger from his early years until the present."

Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict in April 2005. He was the head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II.

"The common misconception is of (Cardinal) Ratzinger as the 'Rottweiler' of (Pope) John Paul's pontificate," Father Neuhaus said. "Rather this is a man of great intellectual curiosity."

"Pope Benedict is proposing ... to bring together reason and faith. The Christian proposal is not an intellectual tradition, nor merely a system of morality," the priest said.

Rather, he explained, "It is an encounter, an inexhaustible adventure into living a life in response to (the) human face of God."

Anderson spoke about Pope Benedict as a "man consistently described in terms of simplicity, gentleness, joy."

"The more we learn about (Pope) Benedict, the more we think about the beatitudes. The catechism reminds us that beatitudes are at the heart of Christ (and) form the basis of Christian understanding of hope," he said.

In the pope "is a concern for the human effects of secularism," he said.

"His encyclicals make great effort to differentiate between secular optimism and progress. Christian charity differs from welfare and social services," Anderson said.

"Secularizing Christian thought diminishes the way in which Christians are capable of representing through their lives the newness of God in the world. We can't be neutral before God, we can either say 'yes' or 'no.'"

Schindler outlined points he believes are central to Pope Benedict's philosophy.

"All the problems of the West can be traced to the forgetting of God," he said.

The pope "embodies a new idea of God and reason," he said. "It entails a new sense of reasonableness of love, God and love-centeredness, the call to holiness."

Msgr. Albacete said he thought the most important thing about the papal visit would not be the impact of his teaching, but the mere "presence of the pope."

"There is a danger of papal visits becoming as commonplace as the space-shuttle launch. The temptation is to not take it seriously," he said. "But for me, the pope represents a flesh and blood link to Jesus Christ himself. Without the pope's visit, there is a danger of Christianity becoming a creative abstraction of the mind."

But "the presence of the pope gives us this assurance of sustaining the church," the priest said. "Christ in the flesh as he promised will be fulfilled."

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Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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