April 25, 2008

Christ our Hope: Apostolic Journey to the United States 2008

Educators, charities official reflect on papal experiences in Washington

David Siler awaits the start of the papal Mass on April 17 at Nationals Park in Washington. (Submitted photo)

David Siler awaits the start of the papal Mass on April 17 at Nationals Park in Washington. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

For David Siler, it was a moment when he felt deeply the pride of being Catholic.

For Annette “Mickey” Lentz, it was the reassurance that her life’s work continues to be a great gift to children and young people.

For Daniel Elsener, it was the affirmation of knowing that an education built upon faith can lead to amazing possibilities.

Those three leaders in the archdiocesan community experienced those reactions after being in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the United States from April 15 to April 20.

Here are their stories:

‘I’ve never done that before’

Within 24 hours in Washington, D. C., David Siler experienced two of the most amazing moments he’s known as a Catholic.

First, on April 16, he was part of the crowd that stood on the South Lawn of the White House, welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to the United States.

“News accounts said it was the largest event or gathering at the White House in its history,” said Siler, the executive director of the archdiocese’s Secretariat for Catholic Charities and Family Ministries. “I was able to be there through Catholic Charities USA. It was great to be part of that historic event.”

On April 17, Siler was just 20 rows from the pope, part of the crowd of 46,000 people who filled Nationals Park for the first public Mass of the pope’s pilgrimage to the United States.

“While the pope was sitting there, I was snapping pictures in the Communion line,” Siler says. “I’ve never done that before. It was really an electric atmosphere, almost like a rock concert. We were there two hours early and the energy just kept building. When the announcer said the pope had arrived in the stadium, the applause and the cheering just erupted. It was amazing.”

Still, there’s a different memory that Siler holds dearest from seeing the pope.

“Just being in the presence of that many Catholics—the pride and enthusiasm of being with that many Catholics with our Holy Father there to encourage us. He just reminded us to be a sign of hope to the world. His message was very encouraging and uplifting. I felt very proud to be Catholic.”

‘He made you feel at peace’

They were among a select group chosen to meet Pope Benedict XVI, a group of about 350 individuals that represented many of the best and brightest people in Catholic education.

Some were presidents of Catholic colleges and universities. Others were the leaders of Catholic education for dioceses and archdioceses across the United States, including Annette “Mickey” Lentz, the executive director of Catholic Education and Faith Formation for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

In 47 years as a Catholic educator, Lentz has had the kind of contagious, effusive approach to education that has inspired others to try to make a difference in the lives of young people. Yet as she listened to the pope talk about Catholic education on April 17 at The Catholic University of America in Washington, she was the one being inspired.

“He was so affirming,” Lentz recalled. “He recognized the importance of Catholic education and how important it was to him and the Church. After 47 years in Catholic education, it was like, ‘Wow! It has been worth it.’ It said to me, ‘This is your ministry. This is your vocation.’ I felt really touched by his presence.”

She especially appreciated hearing about his insistence on keeping a Catholic identity in schools and ­universities.

“I really loved hearing that,” she said. “With freedom goes responsibility and discipline. If we’re going to proclaim the Good News, it isn’t easy but that’s our job, that’s our ministry.”

At 66, she also drew encouragement from the energy of Pope Benedict, who turned 81 during his visit to America.

“There was an up-close-and-personal time with him,” she noted. “There’s just this joy in his eyes. He made you feel at peace. He’s very spry, too. It was a side I thoroughly enjoyed getting to see. It was a moving experience.”

Seeing the whole picture

Daniel Elsener was also part of the one-hour meeting on April 17 that Pope Benedict had with Catholic educational leaders from across the United States.

“For me, it was very meaningful,” said Elsener, who has been president of Marian College in Indianapolis for nearly seven years while his experience in Catholic education extends some 30 years, including time as the leader of the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Education.

“It was very encouraging and affirming. The Holy Father is, obviously, kind of at the end of the line and sees the whole picture. I’ve been in education a long time, and I just don’t know of a time when I was more enthused and felt more a part of a tightly-knit community of educational leaders.”

During his address, Pope Benedict encouraged his audience “to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life that follows from this belief.”

Elsener said that the Marian community has been working hard to meet the pope’s challenge by providing intellectual formation for the seminarians of the Bishop Simon Brute College Seminary in Indianapolis and by forming future lay ecclesial leaders.

He also said that a house of discernment for women at Marian who are considering religious life is scheduled to begin in the next academic year.

“There was a large vision laid out by the pope. . .[and] “an affirmation for the progress we’ve made.”

(Reporter Sean Gallagher contributed to this story.) †

(Click here to read the pope’s address to educators)

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