Bring on the bobbleheads, the tee-shirts, and the Popemobile! If people can't get a little fun out of a papal visit, what's it good for? And that's a fair question: what is it good for? Herewith a couple of thoughts.
There's something touching about the vast expectations, both hope and dread, entertained in some quarters before a papal visit--not just the impending visit by Pope Benedict but any visit by any pope. "When the Pope comes," so some people apparently think, "he will turn everything upside down--or at least give a big boost/serious knock [take your pick] to the things I care about." As those of us who've observed a papal visit or two are well aware, it isn't quite that way.
With few exceptions -- John Paul II in Poland in 1979 comes especially to mind -- lasting and dramatic change in society or even in the local church usually is not in the cards. A friend reminds me that after John Paul's 1987 U.S. trip, the bishops' conference published the papal texts as a book, with an introduction by the conference president of that day urging people to read and study the Holy Father's words so as to prolong the visit's good results. The book has long since gone out of print, the visit is largely forgotten. One is tempted to say: Sic transit...
Yet I believe that papal visits do have good and lasting results. Usually, though, they are in individuals--below the radar of the media and almost everybody else. Conversions effected, vocations discerned and embraced--the effects of grace working through the medium of a public event. I expect it will be that way this time, too. In the eyes of the world, Pope Benedict's visit will be a macro event, with trappings and hoopla to match. But lasting change for the better will mainly take place in some individual hearts. Which is more than sufficient, I'd say, to make it all worthwhile.
Now, back to the bobbleheads.
-- Russell Shaw