Brushes with greatness are sometimes born of mundane circumstances.
On an autumn afternoon in 1979, life was feeling particularly mundane in Athens.
Four of us, all students at Ohio University from various Christian backgrounds, had lazily skipped Friday afternoon classes in favor of “happy hour” at a nearby watering hole.
While checking a newspaper for evening movie times, someone joked about the impending visit of the new pope, John Paul II — who planned to say Mass the next day on the National Mall in Washington
Someone else slyly suggested we go see him — an idea we initially dismissed as simply ludicrous.
Before long, though, we were checking the schedule of the nearby Amtrak station. Surprisingly, we discovered, a trip to D.C. was doable for a round-trip fare of $75 apiece. We had about two hours to get ready and catch the train, and seats were available.
What the heck, It isn’t often that the spiritual leader of 1 billion people travels to the United States (besides, we had missed the earlier happy hour specials on Court St and the evening screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show had been canceled.)
News reports indicated that the Mass was to be public; we just needed to show up and head to the appropriate Mall gates.
We couldn’t afford sleeper cars on the train, so we settled for coach the whole way — with apples, Cracker Jacks, a flask of Jack Daniels and Dr Pepper, in tow.
It was a long nite. When we got to the Mall, tired and disheveled, I was taken aback: I expected to see folks praying solemnly in formal attire (much like the scratched up black-and-white news-reels of former popes who held audiences at St Peter’s Square at the Vatican); instead, I found a rock-concert-like atmosphere.
Hundreds of trash containers filled the Mall, as did peddlers of ice cream, balloons and buttons with the face of John Paul II, postcards, official programs and more. Portable toilets lined the venue.
Priests were dressed in shorts and multicolored collars; nuns, in T-shirts and tennis shoes. The crowd included the old and young, poor and not-so-poor, Christian and non-Christian. The scene seemed surreal.
Though hundreds of feet away, we had a clear view — and the sea of humanity was incredible. Security was tight, with sharpshooters atop the nearby Smithsonian Institution and police in abundant supply.
After waiting in the morning sun for about 90 minutes, we finally witnessed the arrival of John Paul II. A seemingly authentic electricity went through the crowd.
The pope, in an era before the “pope-mobile,” entered from the right side of the Mall, waving to the throng. Cheers immediately erupted, and the crowd started chanting “John Paul! John Paul!” in a rhythmic staccato.
He took his gleaming pastoral staff from a nearby priest and started tapping it on the floor of the makeshift altar, in perfect rhythm with the crowd.
When the pontiff finally stopped tapping, he broke into a wide smile; the Sun shown from behind a cloud, and the crowd again applauded.
People were intrigued by this curious person — showing a vulnerable humanity that seemed to have eluded his predecessors.
A poet, an actor and a priest, John Paul II obviously had an uncommon appeal. Inexplicably, he riveted those in attendance.
Call it charisma; call it mass hysteria. Whatever it was, it was very real.
The pope walked briskly across the enormous altar, his gold and olive-green robes billowing in the wind.
He then said Mass, during which he addressed the crowd at length and even cracked a joke or two in his heavily accented English.
The experience was incredible.
Little did we or anyone else there know the far-reaching effects that this individual would have on the social, religious and political world during the next quarter-century, his being instrumental in the disassembling of the Soviet union, changes to social cultures and more, promoting his eventual being accorded the status of “Saint”, a decade later.
Our weekend adventure ended far too quickly: The train ride home to Athens was hot and long (with the air conditioning on the fritz).
In retrospect, the visit was hardly just another mundane outing — or impulsive trek…but actually something special — for this bunch of students.
Even from afar, we knew we’d been touched by someone great on that sultry first weekend of October years ago.
You can read this and other stories of inspiration by MichaelAngelo Massa, JD, @ Patheos.com