But was this visit merely a meet 'n greet, a chance for the country that wholeheartedly embraced his charismatic predecessor, John Paul II, to get a glimpse of the new Big Man of the Catholic Church?
Judging from the tone employed in the deluge of articles about Benedict's visit, the answer is "no." Reports of Benedict in America have been surprisingly positive. It can't be easy for an elderly pope with a reputation for being strict and rule-abiding to impress America's liberal media. Sometimes his actions spoke louder than anything he could say -- he became the first pope to visit a synagogue in the United States, showing his support for building Jewish-Catholic relations, and also mourned at Ground Zero with victims of 9/11.
However, his speeches also had powerful messages for the American people. He spoke out strongly against clergy sex abuse and the way that it had been dealt with by American churches and (very sensitively) touched on his differences of opinion with President Bush over issues of immigration, the death penalty and the war in Iraq.
Benedict also made a number of speeches directed at American Catholics who pick and choose which church doctrines they will follow. These people are often known as "cafeteria Catholics" -- people who choose to believe the parts of doctrine they like and leave out the rest. Cafeteria Catholics often differ from the official church stance on issues like abortion, contraception and homosexuality, as well as doctrine on the transubstantiation of the Eucharist or the virgin birth of Jesus.
The term "cafeteria Catholic" seems misleading and frustrating. It indicates somebody who, to extend the metaphor, is just a picky eater who leaves behind teachings that are hard to swallow. But many American Catholics have truly struggled with reconciling their personal interpretation of Jesus' teachings with the official explanation set forth by the Church. Is this search less important than agreeing with everything said from a pulpit by another fallible human?
Benedict made it clear that he was concerned about this issue of diverging beliefs in American Catholicism, blaming the problem on the strong sense of individualism in American culture. It's true that Americans are used to a democratic way of thinking, and the Catholic Church is certainly not a democracy.
Furthermore, with the shortage of priests, more American Catholics are having to take on a more active role in their parishes. When lay people are doing many of the things that priests used to do, it's no wonder that they also feel an increased stake in deciding what they believe and why they believe it.
During his time in the United States, Pope Benedict showed a clear understanding of many of the issues that are unique to American Catholics today. But he represents a Church to which symbols are very important; in fact, he himself is a symbol, perhaps a symbol the American Catholic church no longer finds relevant.