The Catholic University of America
Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M., university president, appeared on "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer" on April 6 to discuss Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States. See the transcript of the interview below.


Father O'Connell Discusses Papal Visit on CNN

From: CNN
Date: April 6, 2008
Host: Wolf Blitzer

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're only 10 days away from the much- anticipated visit to the United States by Pope Benedict XVI. His itinerary includes presiding over Mass here in Washington at the new Nationals baseball stadium, another Mass at Yankee Stadium in New York, and a speech at the United Nations.

He is also expected to address Catholics' concerns about church doctrine and other issues. Joining us now is Father David O'Connell, he is the president of the Catholic University here in Washington.

You're going to be one of the hosts of Pope Benedict when he comes here. Give our viewers in the United States, Father O'Connell, a sense of this visit by the pope to the United States, his first as the papal leader.

O'CONNELL: It's a very important visit, and actually, a time of great joy and celebration. The pope is coming to the United States really to celebrate the bicentennial of five archdioceses in the United States, really the establishment of the Catholic Church in the United States.

And so it's a time of great celebration for us. Also, in light of recent experience of the church and our country, a time of renewal and a time of hope.

BLITZER: Explain a little bit, what does that mean, a time of renewal and a time of hope?

O'CONNELL: Well, the church has had some hard times, as you know, in recent years with the horrific crisis that it has been through. The church has been wounded.

BLITZER: In terms of priest abusing parishioners?

O'CONNELL: That's right. Yes, in terms of the sexual abuse of children. And although that's not the focus of the visit, it's something that is very much in the minds and the hearts of Catholics and it weighs heavily upon us all.

BLITZER: Do you think the pontiff will raise that issue, will discuss that issue?

O'CONNELL: Well, it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't raise it in some context. But he's not going to make it the focus of the trip. The trip is going to be focused on the future, on hope, and on Jesus Christ, the person of Jesus Christ as the reason for our hope in the world.

BLITZER: So what will be his basic message, based on everything you know?

O'CONNELL: I think his basic message -- and it is important to know, because I've been reading in the papers, people saying he's going to say this and he's going to say that. The fact of the matter is, no one knows. No one has a text of his speeches at this time.

But I think what we can find in this is a pope who will speak in a way that is consistent with what he has taught and believed over many, many years, even before he has been pope.

BLITZER: Now you have known him for many years. You go way back with him. Tell us a little bit about this man, because a lot of our viewers in the United States and around the world really, they have read a little bit about him, they know a little bit about him. But tell us something we don't know about this man.

O'CONNELL: Well, I got to know him only because of Catholic University. That is a pontifical university. And when the president is appointed there, it has to be approved by the Vatican. He was one of the two cardinals who had to approve my appointment.

And I went over shortly after that to present myself to him and to have conversations with him.

BLITZER: Because Catholic University in Washington is really sort of a representative of the Vatican in the United States.

O'CONNELL: It's the national university of the church in the United States. And it is directly accountable to the Vatican. It is unique from other Catholic institutions in that respect. And so over the years I've had time to visit with him, to talk to him. I've actually invited him to the United States before he became pope. And maybe about six months before he became pope he wrote me a letter and asked me to stage a conference on the natural moral law. I'm glad I said yes. Six months later he was the pope. So it was a good move on my part.

BLITZER: Good career move for you.

O'CONNELL: Yes, it was. It was a good move. But he's a very shy man.

BLITZER: He speaks English well, though.

O'CONNELL: He speaks English very, very well. And he gets the nuance as well.

BLITZER: And he has been here many times.

O'CONNELL: He has been to the States many times. He has been to Washington. He was in Washington in 1990 to give an address. So he is familiar with the campus of Catholic University and this area of Washington, D.C. A gentle, soft-spoken man, brilliant, terrific intellect, sharp as a tack. And he does get the subtleties of what is going on.

BLITZER: He understands what's going on here. There's -- Time Magazine has a cover story in the new issue, "Why the Pope Loves America." That's the headline.

Among other things, it says this, "Benedict has a soft spot for Americans and finds considerable value in his U.S. church, the third largest Catholic congregation in the world. Most intriguing, he entertains a recurring vision of an America we sometimes lose sight of, an optimistic and diverse but essentially pious society."

Now tell us why this German priest is so in love with the United States.

O'CONNELL: Well, I think that citation from Time magazine says it very well. This is an optimistic man, an affirmative man. And I think we can expect that from the messages that he's going to deliver.

He'll be delivering 11 speeches and homilies while he's there, one of which will occur at Catholic University to Catholic educators and Catholic college presidents.

And I think what we can expect from him is a sense of what's at the core of the church, its mission, and its teaching. And he's going to lift that up in a very positive way for all of us as a source of encouragement and a source of hope.

BLITZER: He comes in the midst of, as you know, a very, very important presidential campaign in this country.

And he's going to have to walk, I assume -- tell me if I'm wrong -- a, sort of, delicate tightrope, not to get involved in domestic American politics, especially when you have two Democratic presidential candidates who support abortion rights for women and a Republican presidential candidate who is against abortion.

O'CONNELL: There are going to be many things about our own country and its current situation, the good and the bad, that are very well known to this pope. But I would be surprised -- and again, I don't know what's going to be in the text of his speeches -- I would very surprised if he touched on anything that could be -- could co-opt him, in the sense of him engaging...

BLITZER: But would he give some sort of message to American Catholics, for example, on this sensitive issue of abortion, go ahead and vote, in one way, against those who support abortion?

O'CONNELL: Again, I think he'll be consistent with what he's taught and preached all along. But I don't think he will direct that, in any way shape or form, toward the political situation we find ourselves in right now.

BLITZER: So, when we watch on television -- and there will be extensive coverage of the mass at the Washington Nationals Stadium here. He's got a separate event at Catholic University; in New York, as we said, at the U.N. He's also going to be meeting with Jewish leaders.

Give us a little sense of what you hope will emerge from this visit.

O'CONNELL: I hope that people, first and foremost, will get to know him a little bit. Unlike his predecessor, who had rock star status, this man, because of his intellect and his scholarly reputation, he's a little bit more reserved. And there's a little bit more mystery.

In fact, I think it's intentional on his part. When he became pope, he indicated that he wanted the attention to be focused on Jesus Christ and not on the person of the pope. And he said that not as a criticism of his predecessor but as a point of difference.

What I hope the people here will get from his visit is really a sense of optimism and a sense of renewal, a new Pentecost, as it were, where they will feel that the church can look forward, conscious of what has happened in its past, but hopeful in its future.

BLITZER: We'll be covering it every step of the way. And we hope you'll be joining us throughout this visit, Father David O'Connell. Thanks for coming in.

O'CONNELL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And just to be up front with viewers, I just wanted everybody to know you were kind enough to give me an honorary degree from Catholic University. I gave the commencement address a few years ago. And I deeply value that, deeply appreciate it.

O'CONNELL: I forgot to call you Dr. Blitzer.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: You don't have to do that. Thanks very much.

O'CONNELL: Thank you.

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