If things had gone differently when Pope John Paul II died, President Obama could have been meeting with a black pope. Imagine the significance of that moment: the first black American president meeting the first black Pope. Well, the fact is that Benedict was chosen over candidates of color the last time around, so we are left with this meeting between the leader of the Free World and the leader of the world’s Catholics. What good comes from such a meeting as this?
It seems like a photo opportunity for the most part, at least at first glance. The picture I saw in my local paper here in New York featured a very conservatively dressed Michelle Obama, her head covered by a black veil, standing alongside the Pope as he exchanged papers with her conservatively dressed husband. It seemed such a reverential moment, and the respect and dignity the Obamas felt for the Pontiff were quite obvious.
We get the official version of things here. Yes, they spoke about abortion, stem cell research, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is as we should expect it to be: two world leaders talking about important matters of the day but, of course, there is and has to be much more to this story.
What I would like to have heard is what was really said behind closed doors, away from the press and the cameras and Michelle, her mother, and the children. This would have been the conversation I would like to have heard.
As President of the United States, I am sure Mr. Obama, representing millions of American Catholics (including Senator Ted Kennedy, from whom he brought a personal letter for the Pope), would have talked with the Pope about the reality of American life in regards to many things. Besides big topics like abortion and stem cell research, there are many other issues pressing for Americans today.
How can our children attend Catholic schools which continue to be too expensive for average people? What can be done about a shortage of priests and other religious? Would you at least consider thinking about an option to allow priests to marry after taking their vows? Do you understand the importance of young people using condoms, not as a means of birth control, but to avoid diseases that will kill them?
The Pope would have plenty of things to talk about as well. He could have asked Mr. Obama to consider ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That makes sense, but what about the wars happening right here at home? Can we condemn Iranians for killing a female protester in the streets without thinking about protesters who died right here in America at Kent State many years ago? What about our continued war on drugs? Is anything substantial being done to stop the flow of drugs in our streets?
What about the brutal attack on our children's sensibilities by all media? Sitting through an evening of American television, would the Pope not be disgusted by the ads about male sexual enhancement drugs, feminine hygiene products, and the general disdain for decency in shows depicting premarital sex and violence as regular and normal ways of life?
Yes, there must have been much to discuss on the table for these two men, but thirty minutes does not allow for much discussion beyond the pleasantries of introduction and pomp and circumstance. How much real discourse could have taken place? We know that gifts were exchanged, and that the Pope also gave Obama a lengthy printed treatise on the Vatican’s stance regarding stem cell research. This is a good start, but so much more is needed.
When these two men had a chance to sit down, one-on-one, with no cameras and no else present, what was exchanged? Obama is in dire need of direction when it comes to spirituality, and the Pope is in dire need of a lesson on the real world out there. Hopefully, the Pope blessed Mr. Obama and will continue to pray for him as he leads this nation and the world in matters of significance regarding urgent economic, social, and political events. For his part, Mr. Obama should have offered the promise of continued and meaningful dialogue. Too often, it seems the President (and this is true for most administrations in my memory) of our country does not appreciate the importance of the man who is in charge at the Vatican.
Two remarkable men met in Rome yesterday. We can only hope that their meeting is the start of something better and not just a photo opportunity. The lives of millions, perhaps even billions, of people hang in the balance. In an increasingly violent and disturbing world, their leadership can make a difference; their joint cooperation may just be the thing we need to rise to a better level of understanding and affect real change in matters that are truly life and death issues.