Sunday, April 20, 2008

Pope Benedict's Visit: "Christ Our Hope"- My Experience

How can I even start to blog about my trip to Washington D.C. to see Pope Benedict? How can I even begin to try to unravel what the Papal visit means for the Church in America and for the universal Church? I'm far less articulate than I want to be but I have to try because neglecting to write anything about this experience, which has already impacted my life and will inevitably impact the world- would be almost unforgivable. I'm going to start out by saying that I'm a big fan of Pope Benedict XVI. I think he's exactly the man the Church needs, which makes a whole lot of sense when you think about the way the papcy works. He is a brilliant theologian and a stalwart defender of the truth. He's a liturgist with an appreciation for tradition. He's unbelievably articulate, gracious, and loving. If you can't tell, I have a bit of a Pope-crush. Even if he were none of these things, I would still love him because he is the successor to St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ. He's a major world player and a head of state, which explains the secular media buzz, but for Catholics, he is so much more than that. The first time I saw Pope Benedict was in 2007 on my pilgrimage to Rome when he lead the Angelus in St. Peter's Square from his window (video ). My classmates and I were completely in awe and so thrilled to see him in person. At the time, I had no idea that in a little over a year later I would be seeing the Holy Father in the United States. I was able to spend Holy Week of 2007 in Rome, attending the Holy Thursday Papal Mass, the Good Friday Papal service, Stations of the Cross with Pope Benedict, and Easter Sunday in St. Peter's Square. The entire week was completely overwhelming, because I was seeing the Vicar of Christ on a daily basis, during the high point of the Church year, with thousands of other Catholics. As I stood in St. Peter's Square on Easter Sunday, waving goodbye to the Holy Father, I shed a few tears, thinking that I would never see this amazing, holy man who I had grown to love and admire, in this world ever again.

I haven't been back to Rome since Holy Week of 2007; instead I traveled five hours by car to attend the Papal Mass at Nationals Stadium during "Christ Our Hope," Pope Benedict XVI's apostolic visit to the United States. We were fortunate enough to have obtained tickets to stand on the grounds of the National Shrine so we could catch a glimpse of Pope Benedict before he entered the Shrine to meet with the US bishops. The weather was absolutely perfect, and we stood near the Eastern entrance where the Holy Father was going to enter. We decided that standing right next to a group of about twenty Missionaries of Charity couldn't hurt either. After waiting in the sun for a few hours, the US Bishops and Cardinals arrived in charter buses and the excitement and reality that we were in the midst of the most powerful men of the Church in America, about to greet the Holy Father, began to set in. Around 5:15 pm the Shrine's bells began to ring, preceding the arrival of the Holy Father. As security officers on motorcycles drove past us, we craned our necks for any sight of the tell-tale white Mercedes known as the pope-mobile. Finally, the people pressed against the barricade to our right began to shout and cheer and we were able to catch our first glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI. The Holy Father was sitting in the pope-mobile, windows rolled down, and was enthusiastically smiling and waving at us. At the closest point, he was about fifteen feet away from where I stood, and I could see him clearly enough to make out the joy in his facial expression, especially the fantastic look of joyful recognition when he saw and acknowledged the Missionaries of Charity to my left.

When I saw him at such a close proximity, it was like I was able to realize more fully how accessible he is- yes, he's the successor to St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church, and a gifted theologian, but he's also a man like any other, one that I could develop a personal relatioship with. I think, on some level, or in some way, all of the people reaching out and calling out to him that day, this whole visit, were feeling and longing for the same thing. I feel that he somehow feels the same way about us. He's met a handful of US Catholics on his visit, but he wishes that he could meet all of us, and in those few moments, where he passed so closely to where we were standing, waving and smiling, he recognized our love and appreciation of him, this man we don't know personally but feel as if we do, and he returned our sentiments by appearing to us and for us. Although the vehicle was moving slowly, he was gone before we knew it, and his stepped on to the red carpet that lead into the Shrine and disappeared into the Basilica. It took us over an hour to make our way to the metro because of the congestion of people, as well as some protestors who didn't make things easier, which I'll write about later when I get the chance.

My personal experience with Pope Benedict XVI's apostolic visit to the United States continued when my companions and I attended the Mass at Nationals' Stadium in Washington D.C. We arrived at the stadium around 7 am, though the Mass wasn't scheduled to begin until 10. We were seated along the third base line on the first deck and we had a good clear view of the entire Mass. I can't ignore the fact that I wasn't thrilled by the musical selection. The musical selection was meant to signify the diversity of the Archdiocese of Washington where the Mass took place. There were at least three choirs that I can remember, the Papal Choir, the Children's Choir, and the Intercultural Choir. Some traditional hymns and chants were sung, but there were also more ethnic and contemporary song choices, such as Hispanic and African songs. I'm all for culture, but instead of reflecting and celebrating in diversity, there was much less of a sense of coherence and flow because of this. Also, the traditional things they chose weren't even that fantastic (ie. the responsorial psalm that sounded like "Don Juan Triumpant" from Phantom of the Opera). Marty Haugen's "Mass of Creation??" Let's be real people. Just not necessary, and at the Pope's Mass? On a positive note, the altar set up was beautiful, with a make-shift, but nice and functional baldichino and a really nice crucifix, and the Holy Father's trade-mark candles set up on the altar. The stadium erupted when the Holy Father arrived at 9:30, circling the stadium once in the pope-mobile, a nice touch. Pope Benedict seems like a shy, reserved person, and in comparison to Pope John Paul II he really is reserved, but when he's circling a stadium of 46,000 people in his custom Mercedes, he seemed more like a rock star than ever before. I don't think he was exactly lapping it up, but he must know how badly the people in the stadium wanted to see him close up, and the drive around the stadium did that for us in some way.

Attending the Mass celebrated by the Holy Father is always a blessing, and the presence of the Pope in America, celebrating the Eucharist, which is the cornerstone of the Catholic faith, truly displayed the universality of the Church, and was a visible sign of the communion members of the faith share with each other. For this week, all eyes were on Pope Benedict XVI as he moved from location to location, activity to activity. I know his general daily schedule, but I don't usually follow his activities so closely, but participating in this Mass, sharing the Eucharist, showed me that even now, when the Pope has left the US and has "disappeared," more or less, back behind the walls of the Vatican, I am united to him, and to the rest of the faithful, when we share in the Eucharistic meal. Maybe I'm theologizing too much, but the point I'm trying to get across is that though I won't physically close to the Pope Benedict for who knows how long, I can always be united to him through the Eucharist. There are many other things I want to touch on and elaborate about regarding the visit, especially the sentiments Pope Benedict conveyed in his homilies and speeches, but I don't have time to right now and it's beyond the point of this blog. This post is my immediate reaction and my personal experience with this papal visit. Overall, I'm convinced that Pope Benedict XVI loves the members of the American faithful, though he recognizes the problems we face, and he encourages us to overcome rather than succomb to the trials of our materialistic culture. The Papal Visit has deepened my love for the universal Church and I hope that the same seeds of love have been planted in the hearts of many many Catholics in the United States who were touched in some way by Pope Benedict's visit.

Photos: All credit to S. Hlabse, excluding photo of National Shrine (Knights of Columbus).

1 comment:

Okay Here I Go... said...


Although I didn't get nearly as close to Papa as you did, and all I saw of the Mass was the big screen (which was completely blocking our view, as we were behind the stage...sanctuary...not sure what to call it), I was completely overwhelmed by the whole experience.

The Holy Father's presence in America is basically him communicating that he loves us, appreciates our faith, and cares deeply for our souls. America is a twisted place in more ways than one, and I feel like the Pope's presence here has sanctified our country and not only its Catholics, but its population as a whole.

Being so physically far from our spiritual center, I think Americans tend to forget that we need our Pope. But you're completely right -- this visit was an amazing reminder that even though many American Catholics will never meet the Pope, never see him up close, never even make it to Rome, we are still united closely together in the deepest and strongest way possible on earth -- through the Holy Eucharist.

The joy on the Holy Father's face was unmistakable. At one point, the screen was showing a close-up of his face, and he looked so serious....but then the crowd started chanting "Benedicto!" and his face absolutely lit up into the most genuine smile, like a father delighting in his children. Seeing him made me realize that he's not just a stylized, unapproachable leader -- he is our shepherd, and this visit is more than enough evidence that he takes that calling very seriously, and takes it on with the utmost love and compassion.

Viva il Papa!!!!