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Arkansas pilgrims experience Pope Benedict in variety of ways

Published: April 26, 2008   
Lauren Siebold, Immaculate Heart of Mary Church
Pope Benedict XVI passed very near the group from Immaculate Heart of Mary Church April 17 as he rode in the popemobile through the campus of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

In addition to the inspiring luck of the youth group from Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in North Little Rock (see related story), other Arkansans had their own experience of seeing Pope Benedict XVI during his U.S. visit.

Fort Smith parishioner feels pope 'righted a wrong'

Carol Harper and her husband David attended the welcoming ceremony at the White House April 16. They are members of Immaculate Conception Church in Fort Smith.

She said their tickets came from the office of U.S. Rep. John Boozman, congressional representative for the third district of Arkansas.

"Catholics were there from all over the country," she said. "The atmosphere was so elevated and happy. I was really proud to be an American Catholic."

Overall, Harper said the pope's visit was very powerful for her, particularly the way in which he brought healing through his words and actions regarding the clergy sex abuse scandal.

"He said it was wrong and we're going to fix it and we're going to move on," she said. "I had this feeling, a spiritual connection, that he righted a wrong and that forgiveness was a large part of it for me.

"He gave me that strength and that was really powerful for me because I felt like he wasn't hiding and he was taking care of a problem."

Harper also appreciated the Holy Father's praise for America as well as American Catholics.

"He valued our contribution worldwide and to me that was really powerful," she said.

Deacon moved by pope who 'fostering so much good will'

Deacon Richard Papini, diocesan director of Catholic Campus Ministry, and his wife Andrea attended Pope Benedict's public Mass at Yankee Stadium in New York City April 20.

For him, it was an emotional experience, particularly when he received Communion.

"When the priest placed the Eucharist in my hand, I realized it had been consecrated by the Vicar of Christ, it was pretty amazing," he said.

Papini had seen the late Pope John Paul II several times in Rome, Denver, Toronto and St. Louis and even in Des Moines, Iowa.

Though he loved the last pope, Papini said he was really taken with Pope Benedict.

"I was excited that I was getting to see this man who was fostering so much good will," he said. "It was very moving."

"What really impressed me was his overall knowledge and understanding of all these different venues or situations that he was placed in," Papini said. "It seemed like he had such a feel or a pastoral sense about all these different things that he was able to address."

"When he visited the synagogue and when he visited ground zero, those were such meaningful things, just the way he was able to reach out to people. You just felt like this man is so Christ-like and here I am seeing him."

Superintendent of schools given food for thought

Vernell Bowen, diocesan superintendent of schools, attended Pope Benedict's address to Catholic educators at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. April 17.

She was among 400 diocesan superintendents and Catholic university presidents from across the United States.

"It was wonderful and exciting," she said. "I was in the second row, right in the middle in front of the pope. I felt very blessed. I sat between the president of Notre Dame and the president of Franciscan University of Steubenville."

Bowen said the pope "stressed that education is integral to the mission of the Church in proclaiming the Good News."

He also addressed the need to provide a Catholic education for all children who want it. As superintendent, she said, she has always been concerned about providing a Catholic education for students who can't afford tuition.

The pope "really emphasized that we needed to be looking at how we can provide that education to the poor in our communities," she said.

In response, Bowen said, "I really want to concentrate on how we can develop better scholarship availability for our Catholic students."

Personally, Bowen said she felt that the pope was being very pastoral and supportive of the educators.

"He was being the teacher and the shepherd," she said. "I felt very blessed to be there."

After he spoke, Bowen said she was left wanting more, thinking, "It was great that he spoke to us, but now I wish we could have Mass."

Little Rock pastor gets two for one at White House

Msgr. Francis I. Malone, pastor of Christ the King Church in Little Rock attended the welcoming ceremony for the pope on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., April 16.

There the Holy Father spoke in the presence of the President George W. Bush, other government leaders, White House staff and Catholic cardinals, bishops and laypeople from across the nation.

Msgr. Malone said the pope talked about America's freedom as a gift from God.

Pope Benedict stressed, "this is a gift from God but it has limitations in that we must be responsible with the way in which we use the freedoms that God gives us," Msgr. Malone said.

In addition to the pageantry and patriotism, the pastor said he marveled at being in the presence of the pope and the president at the same time.

"What is the likelihood in my lifetime, that at the same moment, I would be in the presence of both the head of the Church and the head of the country," he said.

Bishop-elect Anthony B. Taylor also attended the welcoming ceremony as well as the pope's vespers service and meeting with all American bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception April 16, Msgr. Malone said.

Canon lawyer says seeing the pope never gets old

Msgr. Royce Thomas, diocesan judicial vicar and pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock, also attended Pope Benedict's Mass at Yankee Stadium April 20.

He noted the Holy Father's praise of the 200th anniversary of the establishment of Baltimore as an archdiocese and the bicentennial of the establishment of dioceses in Philadelphia, Boston, Louisville and New York.

"Since I had worked in both Louisville and Philadelphia, and still go to Louisville quite often, that was an extra treat for me," he said.

Msgr. Thomas was one of 500 priests and deacons chosen to distribute Communion at the Mass. "I was probably 20 feet from the pope as we walked by during Communion," he said. New York City firefighters escorted the Communion ministers.

When the pope rode around in his popemobile, "you could feel the crowd's excitement. It would pick up as the popemobile drew closer and closer and people were waving towels and shouting and singing, 'We love Pope Benedict,'" Msgr. Thomas said.

This was his third pope to see in person. He also saw popes John Paul II and Paul VI, but he said, "It never gets old."

"I thought him to be a very shy, gentle person," he said of Pope Benedict. "His English is excellent, very easy to understand."

Msgr. Thomas said he was impressed to learn that the pope had written all of talks himself.

"As somebody who has to do five during Holy Week, that's not easy. But he did two or three a day," he said.

As for Pope Benedict's impact on America, Msgr. Thomas said he thought his attention to the clergy sex abuse scandal showed "he's not going to sweep it under the rug. He truly cares about the victims. He wants to be sure that nothing like this ever happens again."

"I think he respected the diversity of the country and the culture," Msgr. Thomas said. "Also his call for human rights and respect for human dignity, reinforcing a lot of what our values are that sometimes we don't live up to."

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