I Guess You Had To Be There


What an uplifting morning. We Christians like to talk about re-claiming the world for Christ, but there's nothing like a Papal Mass in an unexpected place for making you feel such a thing is possible. If you've never been, there's an infectious spirit in the crowd that begins even before you enter the venue. It's in the subways as you approach: the smiles of recognition among the folks mass-bound (the crucifixes or Benedict shirts & buttons give it away); the amazed looks from regular commuters who feel themselves invaded by people who smile, people who thank the transit police for their assistance, people who yield their seats to the handicapped, people who seem happy. It's in the stadium, where you run into your friends everywhere; and there's a huge tent where 50-some priests are hearing confession after confession for the three hours before Mass begins; and all these beautiful young people are around reminding you that the Church is young, as Cardinal Ratzinger told us at JPG's funeral; and there are scads of young priests of course; and nuns, beautiful nuns, nuns in real habits -- blue nuns, white nuns, brown nuns, red nuns, everywhere young nuns with the most radiant smiles you've ever seen. Take one look at a nun and you know immediately whether she's of the sour "spirit of Vatican II" variety or if she's "got it" --and the nuns at the papal masses all "got it." Audacity of hope? Got it right here, pal, everywhere you look, at least for these few hours.

Here's the view from my seat at 7:30 am (not exciting, but I'm painting a picture).

And here's the view from the same place but looking right instead of left at 9:00 am (with the Pope to arrive at 9:30).

At 9:25 am I sensed a disturbance in the Force and knew the Pope had arrived. Well, actually, it was the sudden appearance of a surveillance chopper overhead, which I knew to be part of the Papal Motorcade (enlarge the photo just above and check out the snipers on the roof --I counted 3 sets). Sure enough, a minute later he was here --and circling in the popemobile. I couldn't actually see that well --I was close enough to the front that he was actually under my sightline-- but it was thrilling for a couple of reasons.

First, it was great fun to watch the crowd perform a kind of spontaneous "wave" of greeting as the Pope approached each section. The flags danced, the shouts grew louder --it was simply a joy to witness the love people have for the Holy Father and how spontaneously they express it. More importantly, I am convinced the excitement the Holy Father generates transcends the "rock star" phenomenon. That was just barely believable of John Paul the Great in his young and vigorous days. But are we really supposed to believe the incredible reception for Benedict is the product of people's attraction to octogenarian theology professors, no matter how famous? No: it's more, and you can sense it: the charism of the papacy makes its presence felt, no matter who holds the office. As he passed, I teared up, which I wouldn't mention since you all know what a B16 freak I am, except that people all around me were tearing up too. It's because he's Peter, and he had come to visit our local church.

I'm not going to say much about the music. It's being viciously panned (see the comments of that post) in St. Blog's for reasons both fair and unfair. Many of the music selections wouldn't have been mine and I'll admit being ashamed of my diocese in front of the pope when some people (it was one particular section) kept wanting to applaud every hymn as if we were in a folk concert and not a mass. However, I'd ask people to bear in mind that some things necessary for a stadium mass may not come across on tv, where close-ups give a false appearance of intimacy. I've read at papal events, and the echo and re-verb are so bad you simply have to speak very slowly and dramatically in order to be understood; and there absolutely must be a cantor directing people or all the parts of the mass will descend into canon form because the sound of the first note hits different parts of the stadium at different times. Some folks are saying the mass was too self-consciously "diverse." Perhaps. Our chancery office and the USCCB staff certainly suffer from diversity disease. On the other hand, the Archdiocese of Washington is majority Hispanic now, and Washington, DC, the host city, is majority black. Anyway, I don't want to get into the liturgical questions right now. I'll simply say that Mr. W. is a traditionalist with a capital "T," and he wasn't offended (not to say thrilled, but thought on the whole it turned out better than he might have expected). However it played on television, in the pews, we were moved by and attentive to the mass, and there was a definite rapport between the crowd and the Holy Father.

What a homily he gave! (He also gave quite a doozy of an address to Catholic educators this evening --and to the bishops last night, but I want to study them a bit before commenting.) The press is focusing on his remarks about sex abuse. In a way I don't mind because Benedict is saying what I wish to heaven any bishop had said at the time. He responds the way I think a red-blooded individual would respond instead of the guarded, bureaucratic, lawyered-up way that most of our bishops did. (He took an unplanned --or at least unscheduled-- meeting with victims of abuse privately later today). His attitude is refreshing and reassuring and healing in that sense.

On the other hand, the press acts as if his 3-4 sentences were the sum total of what he had to say. I was partial to this portion:
through the surpassing power of Christ’s grace, entrusted to frail human ministers, the Church is constantly reborn and each of us is given the hope of a new beginning. Let us trust in the Spirit’s power to inspire conversion, to heal every wound, to overcome every division, and to inspire new life and freedom. How much we need these gifts! And how close at hand they are, particularly in the sacrament of Penance! The liberating power of this sacrament, in which our honest confession of sin is met by God’s merciful word of pardon and peace, needs to be rediscovered and reappropriated by every Catholic. To a great extent, the renewal of the Church in America and throughout the world depends on the renewal of the practice of Penance and the growth in holiness which that sacrament both inspires and accomplishes.
Earlier he said this, the last bit of which is particularly interesting:
Much progress has been made in developing solid programs of catechesis, yet so much more remains to be done in forming the hearts and minds of the young in knowledge and love of the Lord. The challenges confronting us require a comprehensive and sound instruction in the truths of the faith. But they also call for cultivating a mindset, an intellectual “culture”, which is genuinely Catholic, confident in the profound harmony of faith and reason, and prepared to bring the richness of faith’s vision to bear on the urgent issues which affect the future of American society.
That's quite pointed, in a way, given that the Archbishop of Washington is the author of the new catechism for adults, and I concur with the Holy Father's assessment of what might be a "growth area" as the educrats say, for both the ArchD of Washington and its neighboring Diocese, Arlington. It is one thing to transmit information surely and effectively; it is another, albeit related, thing to help hearts catch fire. There is such a richness of intellectual formation in the faith here, but so little holy boldness.

The Pope celebrates Mass so reverently and beautifully; it was a privilege to be present with him. The rite of communion seemed to me to go smoothly --as I said yesterday, these things are stunning feats of organization-- although there were at least two aberrations I read about later.
There was a nice moment at the close of the post-communion meditation. My beloved Placido D sang Panis Angelicus. That rascally group in the mid-level bleachers started to applaud; I was shaking my head in embarrassment, especially as the applause started to spread. But then the Pope himself stood and went to embrace Domingo and --be still my heart!-- the maestro knelt and kissed the Pope's ring. Maybe opera stars just have a knack for dramatic gestures, but it seemed to me that in kneeling Domingo did a wonderful thing --he put his singing back at the level of service to the Pope and ultimately to Christ in the Mass, and he witnessed to the whole world his belief in Peter.

After the mass, the Pope stopped to shake hands with those who lined the recessional route. He seemed to want to spend more time with the crowd, which continued to cheer him loudly the whole time he was leaving. Judging by the freaked out looks on the faces of his security detail (they kept steering him away from people he walked over to greet), I think he did this spontaneously. I am profoundly grateful to have been able to participate. It's a grace to be in the Holy Father's presence --it makes you think about being a Christian of the early Church and the excitement if Peter or Paul came to your community. It was a moment of communion with Christ, with Peter, with the Church and a moment of solace and hope. Then, buoyed by grace, we exited the stadium to this (click to enlarge):

We just smiled, waved our papal flags and went by, but I saw several young buck amateur apologists, Bibles at the ready, debating these guys (don't worry, it was peaceable) and answering the questions posed here:

The one conversation I overheard, the Catholic was routing the guy with the bullhorn with Scripture. Yummy. Anyway, I don't think I'm going to hell. At least...not tonight, not after such an infusion of grace. Viva il papa!

Update: Welcome, Benedict In America readers. Here's video of Placido Domingo singing Panis Angelicus and the embrace with the Holy Father following. Thanks to Mad Musings Of Me (who also appreciates PD) for the link and for the photos I am hereby pinching.