Interview with Carrie Gress of Zenit re: The Holy Father’s trip to U.S.Q: You were the eyes for ZENIT's half million readers during Benedict XVI's trip to the United States. What was the most remarkable thing you saw?
Gress: The run up to the Holy Father's arrival included all sorts of speculation about what the Holy Father would talk about, including the abuse crisis. I'm not sure many people could have predicted how explosive the situation still is after lurking beneath the surface since 2002 and 2003, but it was clearly an open wound for the Church in America. The day before his arrival, I walked down to the White House, and a large and angry crowd had gathered protesting celibacy as the cause for the crisis.What was so remarkable was how the Holy Father responded to this -- not avoiding the issue, but addressing it from the start on the flight to the United States. His meeting with some of the victims was also a surprising gesture that will hopefully do much to bring healing to the wound. Through his very fatherly response, the topic went from being one of deep rancor to something that seemed to melt away in the press coverage.At Nationals Stadium, the Holy Father asked the faithful to "love their priests." This appeared to be another source of deep healing for the clergy, but was also a call of responsibility to the laity. The precious gift of the priesthood is not one to be taken for granted, but is a difficult road of service and sacrifice. A laity mindful of this can do a lot to help keep such abuses at bay.
Q: How did the people on the street and other reporters react to him?
Gress: At the beginning of the visit, there seemed to be some caution on the part of both Catholics and the press about this visit. People were concerned about whether or not it would be a "real event" given his temperament, so different from Pope John Paul II's. Some of the major news outlets didn't really even have a developed plan to cover it.And yet, the first day at Andrews Air Force Base when the Pope arrived, it was clear that something big was happening. People really wanted to see this man, know this man, and be close to him.At Nationals Stadium, I was awestruck by the number of young people and young families. One family I met had traveled from Idaho with five children just to attend the Mass of 46,000. It was certainly no private audience, and yet you could see how happy they were to be there -- to be a part of the event. This was an emotion felt by almost everyone involved. Even the press seemed to get caught up in it. Its not everyday that two seasoned journalists are stunned into silence. Wolf Biltzer of CNN and NBC's Tim Russert both had a semi-private audience with the Holy Father. "I must say, I don't often say it, but I truly feel blessed that I had this opportunity to do what I've just done," said Blitzer on CNN."You know, I didn't ask him a question, and I listened carefully and Tim Russert, if you can believe it, was even more polite and even more stunned and silent than I was," Blitzer said, adding, "I think the two of us did not embarrass our profession, our news business. We just stood there and we watched, we did what we were told."It's hard to think of more remarkable responses.Q: What was your overall experience being there so close to the Holy Father? What was the closest you got to him?Gress: One thing that was not easy to get a grasp of on TV or in print was the amount of security for the events. Six hours was not an uncommon time to wait. Despite this, there wasn't much complaining. The security, unfortunately, also dampened the numbers of people who wanted even just a glimpse of the Holy Father. Despite all this, the excitement people had about seeing him and the sacrifices they made to do it were simply infectious.The closest I got was about 20 feet away from him at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. The tight security and sectioned off areas made it difficult to get much closer. Other times, I was near the back venues in designated press areas, or even outside an event, as with the Mass for clergy at St. Patrick's Cathedral.The trip has increased my own appreciation of living in Rome and the opportunities I have to see the Holy Father -- just to see the lengths other people have gone, even to get a glimpse of him in the popemobile, is a great reminder of the privilege it is to live near the Vatican.
Q: Do you think the Pontiff's trip to the United States was a success?
Gress: If success can be measured by how one brings Christ to others, I think it was a tremendous success. With Pope John Paul II, people flocked to him because of his personality, exuberance, charm and charisma. Even in his later years, there was still speculation that that was the draw for so many young people -- they wanted to be close to a celebrity.But with Pope Benedict, the celebrity flash is just not there -- and yet, he drew people in with the same magnetism -- a magnetism that can only be attributed to Christ. From the president down to school children, everyone seemed to be caught up by his witness of hope.