MU student’s spiritual journey leads him to Pope’s U.S. visit

Tuesday, April 15, 2008 | 3:14 p.m. CDT; updated 8:46 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — Geoff Brooke will travel to New York on Friday to accept an invitation he found hard to turn down. The path leading him there is familiar in a sense: Members of his family have already traveled down it. Yet it holds the promise of the unknown.

The 19-year-old MU freshman will hear Pope Benedict XVI speak on a historic trip, his first to the U.S. since he was elected pope nearly three years ago. Benedict will visit the White House, the U.N. and Ground Zero, the former site of the World Trade Center, during his trip to Washington, D.C., and New York that ends April 20.

Getting to know Pope Benedict XVI

A recent Pew Forum study found that 32 percent of Americans don’t have enough knowledge about Pope Benedict XVI to form an opinion of him. The pope’s visit to the U.S. this week, his first, presents an opportunity to gain a greater sense of who he is and how his views will affect both the church and American culture.


Born Joseph Ratzinger on April 16, 1927, in Marktl am Inn, Germany, the pope will celebrate his 81st birthday while in the U.S. After being ordained as a priest in 1951, Ratzinger established himself as a prominent educator and theologian, teaching in universities throughout Germany. In addition to the doctorate he earned at the University of Munich, Ratzinger holds seven honorary doctorates from institutions worldwide. Ratzinger grew to became a renowned figure in the Catholic Church through his work as a consultant, prefect, author and eventually as the Dean of the College of Cardinals. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Web site refers to Ratzinger as “a major figure on the Vatican stage for nearly a quarter of a century.”


Ratzinger was elected pope in April 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II. He became the first German pope in 948 years and took on the name Benedict in tribute to two famous leaders: St. Benedict, who founded western monasticism, and Pope Benedict XV, who guided the church during World War I. He has written two encyclicals, or papal letters to the church, addressing matters of theology or morality: Deus Caritas Est (“On Christian Love”), published in December 2005, and Spe Salvi (“On Christian Hope”), published in November 2007.

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As his trip nears, Brooke said he gets more excited and has looked at media coverage of the event with great anticipation. He will see the pope at a youth rally at St. Joseph’s Seminar in Yonkers, N.Y.

“When I see or read those things, I say to myself ‘You will be there,’” he said. “That thought alone is overwhelming in a way and definitely very surreal.”

Brooke’s grandmother has seen five popes; his mother was on the parish council that helped bring Pope John Paul II to St. Louis in 1999. Despite his family’s involvement in previous papal visits, Brooke finds it difficult to predict what awaits him.

“At this point, I have a fairly strong sense of faith and understanding of my faith,” Brooke said. “But at the same time, it’s an experience that, at this point, I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like.”

Other Catholics recall how seeing the pope in person brought direction for their spiritual journeys and, in some cases, served as turning points in their lives.

A Growing Faith

Lisa Kendzior was a high school student in Crystal Lake, Ill., when she encountered Pope Benedict XVI. Now a freshman at MU, Kendzior says that experience strengthened her sense of spiritual connection ­— both to God and the Roman Catholic Church.

Kendzior attended World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany, just four months after Benedict XVI became pope. World Youth Day is an international gathering of Catholic youth for prayer, worship, teaching and fellowship; the first World Youth Day was led by Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1984.

Kendzior admits she initially went to see Europe but soon the trip became more of a pilgrimage than a vacation. During a candlelight vigil, she found herself in the middle of a field surrounded by more than one million people and began to find herself spiritually, becoming more aware of the direction her faith needed to take.

“I’d always been active in the church, but I realized I didn’t have a very strong connection with God, and I saw so many people around who had that,” she said. “And that vigil is what made me realize that I wanted that, that I wanted to work towards having that personal connection with God...”

Looking back, Kendzior said she “had faith” before traveling to Germany, but nothing like the faith she now possesses. She will be in Australia this summer for the next World Youth Day, hoping to develop her relationship with God. Kendzior’s observation that papal visits can bring Catholics a greater sense of connection is consistent among those with similar experiences.

“Seeing all these people come out just the way the people came to see Jesus when he came somewhere in the Gospels, it’s the same mystery,” said the Rev. Peter Mitchell, pastor of Assumption Parish in Dwight, Neb., and author of “John Paul II, We Love You: Young People Encounter the Pope.” His book contains essays and testimonies that tell how John Paul II affected the lives of young people.

Sharing the pope’s presence gives Catholics a sense that they are part of something bigger than their local parish or town, Mitchell said.

In an age of technological connectedness that can breed spiritual intimacy, some young people recently experienced the pope’s presence without being on the same continent. Early last month, a group of students at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., joined thousands of university students worldwide who recited the rosary with the pope via satellite, according to a Catholic News Service article. Karen Mahowald, a 21-year-old Catholic University senior in attendance, said she had not expected to feel connected to the Pope or her fellow students in such a powerful way.

“On a technological level, we are together because I see him, he sees us, but just this sense of what we’re doing is the same,” she told the Catholic News Service. “Our actions are the same and it’s in live time and that was really beautiful.”

A Turning Point

On a deeper level, there are Catholic leaders who can trace their calling to ministry back to experiences with Pope John Paul II. Priests such as Mitchell and Jeremy Secrist, associate pastor at Columbia’s Our Lady of Lourdes, point to World Youth Day 1993 in Denver as a moment that encouraged many of their generation to work for the church.

“He (John Paul II) took what was already kind of planted in the soil of my faith and in my heart, and he made it come alive and he made it grow,” said Mitchell, who was 19 when John Paul II came to Denver for World Youth Day. “He said ‘Where are the young men among you who would generously say yes to Christ and serve as priests?’ And it was like that day he called me personally to do this.”

In 1996, while volunteering with the Peace Corps in Tunisia, 24-year-old Sebastian Mahfood attended a Mass given by Pope John Paul II. The Pope grasped his hand, only for a moment, but in that moment Mahfood “felt a great deal of electricity” and remembers losing his breath, he wrote in an e-mail interview.

Mahfood describes that instance as a “turning point” in his life, a moment that would affect many details about his future and one that eventually led him to his position as a professor at Kenrick-Glennon, a Catholic seminary in St. Louis.

The affection young Catholics had for Pope John Paul II has been well documented in a variety of sources, Mitchell’s book among them. With a different man leading the church, can Catholic youth expect a similar spiritual experience when they see Pope Benedict XVI?

Sister Eileen McCann, the U.S. coordinator for World Youth Day, describes the primary difference between Benedict XVI and John Paul II as Benedict’s highly intellectual approach to faith. Having served as a professor before ascending to the papacy, Benedict’s scholarly background informs his interaction with young people.

“Unlike John Paul, Benedict’s a teacher,” she said. “John Paul was more of the rock star ... he could appeal to their emotion. Not that he didn’t appeal to their intellect, but that was the stronger draw, I think.”

In contrast, “Pope Benedict is clearly appealing to their head,” she said. “He’s trying to get them to understand what it means to be Catholic, to understand their responsibilities as Catholics.”

Lasting Growth

Brooke is a student with such an understanding. He is already involved with spiritual life in and around the MU campus.

He serves as the Interfaith Chair on the Steering Committee at the St. Thomas More Newman Center, is the blog director of ReligiousLife@MU, a Web site hosted by the Center on Religion and the Professions. Brooke spearheaded the efforts to organize a prayer vigil in memory of the Virginia Tech shootings, which will take place Wednesday night. Brooke’s participation and leadership in various organizations is motivated by a desire to give back to the God who gave him life and is a way he can help others grow in their faith, he said.

In addition to his activities in Columbia, Brooke has been on seven weeklong mission trips, most recently to Chicago during spring break.

On a previous mission trip to Mexico, Brooke was able to see the issue of immigration from that side of the border. In Chicago, he joined others who recited the rosary outside a deportation center. As he watched people leaving the center in a van, he could picture the very place that van would take them, he said.

While hearing the pope speak can be an electric event, McCann said that local church leaders must help ensure that the thrill young Catholics experience in the moment leads to lasting growth.

“You lose the momentum of the difference it could make in a young person’s life if there’s no follow-up when you get back home,” McCann said. “It can’t be a stand-alone event if it’s going to help a young person grow spiritually.”

She encourages leaders to help attendees re-connect after they return and points to a World Youth Day 2008 group on Facebook, a social networking Web site, as evidence that young people want to connect on the common basis of their faith; a visit to that page reveals nearly 3,700 members.

Though unsure of the long-term effect of his trip, Brooke understands that the pope’s message has the potential to affect two dimensions he finds in his faith. Brooke describes a vertical dimension, which includes his personal devotion and prayer life as well as a horizontal dimension that manifests through service.

“He has the ability with what he says to impact the horizontal, how I go about helping others, how I go about interacting with others,” he said. “I think his presence alone will clearly impact the vertical.”

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