A closer look at Pope Benedict XVI's U.S. visit

Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Celestino Migliore and Father Dennis Dease enjoy a photo from the pope's last visit to St. Thomas in 1984. Migliore, permanent observer of the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations, received an honorary degree and was the featured speaker at St. Thomas commencement exercises in May 2005.

A closer look at Pope Benedict XVI's U.S. visit

One of the most exciting moments of my life as a priest occurred last month when I had the opportunity to hear and to visit with Pope Benedict XVI during his trip to the United States.

I know what you're thinking ... "Well, of course it was exciting for Dease. He's a priest, and the other guy is the pope!" While there is obviously some truth to that – it's not every day that I get to talk to the leader of the Catholic Church – the reasons for my excitement run much deeper.

I saw Pope Benedict on three occasions – his April 17 address in Washington, D.C., to presidents of Catholic colleges and universities and superintendents of Catholic schools, his April 18 address to the United Nations, and an April 20 reception in the residence of the papal nuncio to the United Nations.

Dease greeted the pope and
kissed his ring; it's a centuries-old
custom and an act of respect.

On each occasion I found this beaming pope to be warm, thoughtful and magnanimous. He spoke highly of the work that our Catholic colleges and universities are doing in this country, and he urged us to continue to nurture the faith development of our students. At the U.N. he spoke directly to critical issues facing society, such as the importance of intervention in war-torn areas, the protection of migrants and attention to Africa.

He greeted us Catholic educators with the words of Isaiah as quoted by Paul: "How beautiful are the footsteps of those who bring good news." He referred to those who serve in Catholic institutions of learning as "bearers of wisdom" and said the "noble goals of scholarship and education become an especially powerful instrument of hope."

The pope noted that he knows personally from his own days as a professor, and from recent reports, of the positive reputation of American Catholic education. Catholic schools, he said, have "helped generations of immigrants to rise from poverty and take their place in mainstream society." He urged that we continue to work to assure our inner-city schools' "long-term sustainability" and that all Catholic institutions of learning are "accessible to people of all social and economic strata."

"A nation's fundamental aspiration … (is) to develop a society truly worthy of the human person's dignity," he said. Making room for the transcendent "enriches students with a vision that goes beyond the material, and introduces them to the presence of goodness."

Pope Benedict also reaffirmed what he called "the great value of academic freedom" and urged a "search for truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you." He cautioned against betrayal of the identity and mission of Catholic universities, and he ended his speech with the words: "To all of you I say: bear witness to hope."

I went to Washington and New York knowing that St. Thomas has a special connection with this pope. Pope Benedict, after all, is a St. Thomas alumnus – an honorary alumnus, that is, but an alumnus all the same!

In 1984 Pope Benedict XVI, then
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, celebrated Mass in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas.

See more photos from that visit.

On Feb. 13, 1984, he visited our St. Paul campus as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Holy See's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to commemorate St. John Vianney Seminary's 15th anniversary. He celebrated Mass in the St. Thomas chapel, delivered a lecture and received a St. Thomas honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See's permanent observer to the United Nations, hosted the April 20 reception that I attended, and he represented another great St. Thomas connection. Archbishop Migliore delivered our undergraduate commencement address in May 2005 , when he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. He has since graciously hired only St. Thomas graduates and students as interns for the Holy See's U.N. Mission.

Dease presented this photo to Pope Benedict XVI.

During the reception, I presented Pope Benedict with a photo of a much-younger Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger holding his 1984 honorary degree certificate. He responded with a delighted chuckle and said he thought his visit must have been around 1986.

I pointed out that it was actually 1984 and showed him the date in the inscription below his picture, and he commented on how much time had passed. Later, when I relayed this conversation to my friend, Father John Malone, he admonished me (good-naturedly, I think!) for "correcting" the pope and suggested that what I should have said was: "Well, er, yes, Your Holiness, and I will correct the typo in the inscription right away ... ."

I also gave Pope Benedict a bound copy of 2007 issues of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, which is published quarterly by the Center for Catholic Studies at St. Thomas. We will provide the Vatican with bound copies of previous issues of Logos.

Now, back on campus, I find myself feeling affirmed, appreciated and encouraged by his thoughtful message, his kindness and graciousness, and I shall not soon fo
rget my great fortune in having the opportunity to meet this man.