I posted the pictures last night. But sheer exhaustion prohibited anything more than the most basic commentary. This post hopes to make up for that, but I won’t drone on. I was a “set up” volunteer, working in the vesting areas to make sure the priests and bishops knew where to go. My day began at 2.45am. Having met up with some friends (and leaving my wife sleeping), we arrived at the stadium before 4am. Already, the place was alive with people frantically trying to get everything ready.
First stop was the 4am Mass, celebrated by Fr. Knestout, to consecrate the hosts that would be used for communion. I was glad to receive communion at that time, for I would be surviving only on spiritual sustenance for the next ten hours. After Mass, we needed to help moving things toward the sanctuary, including the beautiful new Paschal candle. The large white tent behind the altar was the make-shift storage area, and it was equipped with a few cushy armchairs and a flat-screen TV!
My main job was, as I said, to ensure the priests knew where they were going. There were about 1600 concelebrants, so you can imagine the logistical difficulties. Priests vested in the president’s club of the stadium. Washington-based priests waited until procession, but visiting concelebrants were told to don alb and stole and to immediately take their seats on the field. I spent a lot of time walking along the tunnel between back corridor and field, showing the priests where they needed to be. Finally, at 8.30, the Washington DC priests began processing. The visiting priests were supposed to be on the field, but there were many stragglers. And don’t get me started about the late-comers! Plus the two who lost their tickets and were prohibited from accessing the field by the secret service. (it ended well!). When this was done, the bishops left at 9am.
At this point, our job was basically done, so we walked the tunnel for the last time. We immediately hopped into the third-base dugout, knowing that the popemobile would be passing shortly (9.30am). The secret service guy politely asked us to descend a couple of steps. We obliged. And sure enough, to the sounds of glorious music and the throngs of 45,000 cheering people, the pope began his lap of the stadium. I wanted some good pictures. The problem is that I am not a good photographer, and tend to mess things up when there is too much commotion. Plus, when seeing the pope up close, I froze. I felt emotional. I noticed how old he seemed, how reddish his facial skin was. I just waved like a schoolboy. He waved down at us. And I botched the chance to get a good picture.
We then decided, taking advantage of our “red jacket” status to head out on the field, following the now-worn procession route. We arrived near the TV cameras, in the middle of the center VIP section. Very shortly thereafter, the procession began. Slowly and solemnly, the papal procession emerged from the home-room locker room (we had no access to that area during the morning). Servers. MCs. We saw our friend Fr. Caulfield from St. Matthew’s. Then came the cardinals, and then the pope, looking magnificent in stunning red vestments carrying the gold processional cross that once belonged to Pope Pius IX. He looked serene, with the slightly nervous smile of an insular academic in a throng of overly-enthusiastic well wishers. Again, I froze, and again, I messed up the chance for a good picture as he passed by.
At this point, it became clear we could not simply stand in the middle of the aisles and block people’s views. Hastily, we scurried around for empty seats. I found one, just behind the first section break in the center-left area (looking toward the altar). The chair felt so comfortable, and I could feel a wave of exhaustion…but adrenaline would get me through a lot more that day. At this point, I participated in the Mass, I enjoyed the Mass. I loved the welcome from Archbishop Wuerl, emphasizing the diversity of cultures that formed the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church in the United States. And as I looked around, I saw that diversity well represented. And yet, we were all one that day. Black, white, rich, poor, English speaker, Spanish speaker– none of that mattered.The sun grew stronger. Of course, I didn’t have sun block and I had not thought to bring sunglasses. My allergy-prone eyes started to water, and I felt the all-too-familiar sinus throb. At times, I felt sleepy. But the homily restored my sagging energy. What an amazing homily! There was this serene, 81-year old man, reading meticulously from a prepared text, as he praised the American church for its vitality, and yet pointed out weaknesses. And boy, did he hit the nail on the head! He noted that in an era of increasing interdependence, we were also becoming more divided– he lamented a “coarsening of social relations” and the “presence of division and polarization” in the Church. I wonder if he had learned about the Catholic blogosphere? [And, ironically, this same blogsophere completely missed the point he was making by lashing out at the “multiculturalism” and what they regarded as the poor musical choices.]
The Mass progressed. What struck me was the sense of solemnity among 45,000 people. There was an instantaneous burst of applause after the homily, but it died down swiftly. A sense of appropriate reverence prevailed during the eucharistic prayer. Pretty soon, the Mass was drawing to a close. OK, I thought, last chance. I immediately put back on my red jacket and positioned myself in the aisle, waiting for the recession. And then the ministers started to recess.
This was the closest I got to the pope. I could have reached out and touched him. I didn’t do that. A friend of mine who did has a nice bruise on the ribs to remind her of the day, courtesy of secret service. People started jostling in earnest. When the pope passed, it became very loud. People started waving, cheering, pushing, grabbing…I heard many cries of “viva el papa”! I was being pushed and shoved in all directions. The something happened that I had not anticipated. I had not planned this, or thought about it. But I called out to the pope: “Tu Es Petrus”, three times. And then…he every so slightly turned his head in my direction, with that trade-mark faint smile of his. He looked in my direction. And then he was gone. Now, you may mock me, but this was an unforgettable experience. [Later, I wondered if I had imagined it. So I watchedthe Fox local channel coverage that night, that I had recorded. And sure enough, there I was, clearly mouthing “Tu Es Petrus” (why was I wearing a baseball cap in the pontiff’s presence?), and sure enough, he turned slightly.]
After the Mass, the clean up began. I bumped into Fr. Knestout who said he wanted a picture of the popemobile, and asked it I could get one for him. By this stage, the pope had left. I asked the secret service guy, who responded “I don’t think I can authorize that”. I reported the answer back to Fr. Knestout, who just said “come on” and we all marched down to see the popemobile, and got some great and unique pictures. Another great photo-opportunity came in the pope’s private vesting area as we were cleaning up.
Then came the hard work– moving things between the home team and visitor areas, up and down lots of stairs, and over the field. By 2pm, they had almost dismantled the sanctuary. At this point, we needed food. All we could get were hot dogs, sold by rather discourteous people, but we relished them anyway, sitting in the chairs with Fr. Caulfield watching the deconstruction of the sanctuary. It was all we had eaten all day. By then, it was over. By 4pm, we had no energy left. We left, took the metro, and went home. But we would never forget that day.