Papal Mass Recap and D.C. Trip 4/15-4/18/08
Contributed by Saint Mary Cathedral Parishioner Natacha Pelaez-Wagner
I am not often at a loss for words, especially the written word, as most of you know, yet adequate words somehow escape me now to describe the events of the last couple of days in Washington, D.C., where I went to attend the Papal Mass on Pope Benedict’s first trip to the United States.
There are so many images and emotions. Some of them viewed on television, and others experienced in person. Some observations: I was so taken with President Bush pulling out all the stops for this visit. He showed such deep reverence for the Holy Father, beginning with going to greet his plane upon arrival (not done as a matter of course for heads of state or any other dignitaries) to the rousing reception at the White House and his respectful quotes during the visit. I also had not realized until this week that it is only the second time that a pope has visited the White House and the first time in 29 years.
The District of Colombia may be accustomed to handling high profile visits, but I was still very impressed at the smoothness with which everything flowed. Lots and lots of advance notice and information on rolling road closures, places along the motorcade routes where one could view the pope, with times he would be by, lots of advance information on how to get to the Mass, and more. They even advertised a commemorative “Mass pass” for the Metro, which you could purchase in advance of the Mass date, use all day long on the Mass day and keep at the end. This helped preclude everyone buying fare cards on the day.
The Metro employees and transit police were out in force, and, given my many visits to D.C., I don’t think I have ever seen them more pleasant, polite and proactively helpful. Keeping hordes of out-of-town visitors moving efficiently was no small feat (I was surprised by how many I spoke to who had never been to D.C. before), and it all seemed to be accomplished quite easily, even to the point of when we disembarked the Metro at the station for the mass, the gates to exit being opened for Mass (no pun intended!) exiting, precluding having to use the fare card, one at a time, to get out of the gates.
When I went to stake out a viewing position along the Popemobile route from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the Basilica, I was familiar with the Catholic University area and metro stop from a college visit with [my daughter] Alexa. It is not in the best area of D.C. In preparation, I left most valuables back at the hotel and only carried essentials with me. I needn’t have worried. The area was crawling with police all over the Metro stop vicinity and area street. Of course, closer to the motorcade route, were all the Secret Service and other security personnel.
Crowds were abundant, but there was such a spirit of goodwill everywhere, with feelings of joy and of electrifying excitement, that it was not a problem. People were polite, pleasant and not once was I in a crowd that pushed, shoved or was difficult. Everyone was so happy to be there! The pope whizzed by, very close-up but very quickly, but it did not seem to matter how brief it was. We all got to see him and to let him know how welcome he was on his first visit to us!
We are a very diverse church, of many races and ethnicities, but surely the largest growing group is Hispanic/Latino. I have read this re: Church demographics in the United States, and the crowds in Washington showed this to be true. Wherever one looked, there were people originating from any and all Latin American countries, evidenced by our true Latino habit of dancing, playing music and singing, no matter where. Along the motorcade routes, and outside the mass stadium, impromptu collaborations of “Alleluia”s and other songs, accompanied by horns, tambourines, percussion and all sorts of indigenous-looking drums.
There were families, young people, older people, school groups and lots and lots of clergy and religious. (I had not seen that many sisters in one place ever in my life!) You could strike up a conversation with anyone; it did not matter where you were, you always had a friendly response.
The Mass itself was amazing. For one, the Archdiocese of Washington is to be commended for its incredible hosting. A mass of 46,000 in a baseball stadium, and they had “goodie bags” for everyone as they walked in the gates. Nice plastic carry bags, with the Papal visit logo on them and various pieces of literature inside, plus a small Papal flag and a beautiful Mass program of 30+ pages. It had a slick cover and was very comprehensive to match such an important occasion. I was further impressed to read on the back cover that the printer had donated the programs. The merchandise booth staff and all stadium ushers were archdiocese volunteers, too. One can only imagine the commitment, devotion and hard work of all those involved in the planning for, and working on, the days of the visit. According to the publication of the Archdiocese of Washington, The Catholic Standard, they trained and coordinated 400 volunteers for the Mass!
The transformation of a baseball stadium into a house of worship was very well done. The altar was beautiful, and I can only imagine the size of the crucifix hanging behind the presiders for it to look large from where I was sitting, high up in the stands. They covered up all the stadium’s advertising, and the stadium really took on the feel of a holy place. The Catholic Standard reported that the altar, pulpit, papal chair and lectern were designed by two Catholic University architecture students and built by a deacon. Holy Communion was distributed by 300 extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and was completely orderly.
Our Austin diocese had 50 seats for the mass, distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis by application. I consider it divine providence that I happened to be on top of things when the application first came out and, as a result, secured a ticket for myself.
To be a part of this historic event and to participate in the Mass are things that likely happen once in a lifetime. I have tried to follow Benedict XVI’s papacy thus far and have been very pleased and impressed by his leadership, style and tone. The media make much of it being difficult to follow in the footsteps of John Paul the Great, and, in some ways, perhaps it is, outwardly, but this visit shows that we Catholics are in very good hands indeed!
Numerous images and memories of the Mass will stay with me for a long time: the music selections that represented the variety of how Catholics worship here in the United States (four different types of choirs totaling 570 voices); the Prayers of the Faithful presented by lay persons in so many languages, including English, Spanish, Igbo, Korean, Vietnamese and Tagalog; one of the choirs singing verse three of the entrance hymn in German in honor of the Pontiff; the Eucharistic gifts being brought up by lay persons representative of our large Church community, including persons with mental and physical challenges; a blind member of our armed services, in formal uniform, being given Communion by the Holy Father; and the beautiful, inspirational homily, delivered by Pope Benedict in English, followed by an abridged version in excellent Spanish.
A lasting memory for me will be that of Plácido Domingo singing “Panus Angelicus” at the end of Communion and right before the concluding rite. He came out like just any other of the many folks who sang during the service at different times and began to sing. I hear this song often at Mass, but to hear it sung by Plácido Domingo at the Papal Mass was truly awesome. At the end, when he turned around to walk off, the pope actually got up from his presider’s chair to walk over to greet him. Plácido genuflected before him on-both knees, took the Pontiff's hands in his and kissed them. To see such a gesture of genuine reverence and humility from a man of Placido's stature brought tears to my eyes.
While for me, personally, it was deeply special to get to attend the Papal Mass, receive the grace of the Holy Father and be “one in the spirit” with 46,000 fellow Catholics from around the country, there is one other reason I was very glad to attend. I wanted to be a part of showing the Holy Father that while the media often focus primarily on the problems and crises affecting the church in the United States (just look at most any headline on this recent visit -- the majority I have seen first lead off with mention of the sex-abuse scandal), there is a lot of good in our Church. We are a strong, growing, vibrant and healthy community of believers, embracing our changing demographics and diversity and addressing the resulting changing needs of ministry and service, and that we are indeed a people of hope, as his theme for the visit, Christ Our Hope, underscored.