Excitement filled the air at Nationals Park on Thursday as 46,000 people turned out to see Pope Benedict XVI celebrate Mass. The cardinals, dozens of bishops, hundreds of priests and VIPs filled the field while the grandstands were packed with exuberant Catholics from all across the United States. The weather was perfectly warm and sunny as Benedict emerged from the tunnel in the Pope-mobile. And as the procession for Mass made its way through the crowd, you could pick out the pontiff by the sun’s glint off his pastoral staff.
Like most of the participants, I woke up at 4:15 in the morning to get on the metro train and get to my seat. But what amazed me the most was not the massive turnout or the swarm of reporters, the music or the decorations—it was the atmosphere of faith that filled the stadium. Though the smell of hot dogs wafted through this homegrown American ballpark, the crowd’s excitement rose to fever pitch not because of a fly ball or stolen base, but because their Holy Father was with them reminding them of what they knew all along, but so often forget, that it is all true: the fact that God exists and sent his Son and that he loves me and you individually. Somehow that reality, that truth came to life for us people in the crowd. For once, we Americans were not reduced to a number to be checked off on a spreadsheet or a company budget. We did not even pay for our tickets. They were a gift.
Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC connected the Pope’s visit to the arrival of the first Catholics in the colonies in 1634. And in his homily, the Pope reminded us that he came at this particular time because it is the 200th anniversary of the creation of the first American dioceses. He told us that the “remarkable growth” of the Church in the United States was but “one chapter in the greater story” of the Church’s growth. Our story is intimately connected with the story of the whole Church and our life with the life of the whole Church. Benedict told us that he has come to America to confirm our faith, to repeat the message that Jesus Christ is Lord, to call us to conversion and to pray for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the American Church.
He repeated over and over that we are called to constant conversion. To take on this task, we are to rediscover Confession, pray ardently and live out the new evangelization. These themes seemed especially appropriate as the Pope lowered his voice to slowly and painfully discuss the clergy sexual abuse scandal. His sincere sadness was deeply moving. Yet he reminded us Americans that we are people of hope. Hope is part of our civic identity and that uniquely American sense of hope parallels the hope we have in Christ. He emphasized that the sacrament of Penance is a key to the renewal of the American Church. The Pope concluded his homily with a few words in Spanish.
In the silence after the homily, a lone female voice could be heard shouting “Viva la Papa!” With this shout, a great wave of cheers and spontaneous shouts followed, many in Spanish. This moment somehow captured the deeply felt love that the gathered congregation had for the Pope. It was like we were children, telling our father how much we loved him. His smiles, waves and expressions gave us the assurance that the love was mutual. After Placido Domingo finished his exquisite rendition of Panis Angelicus, the Pope embraced him. But it was as if he wanted to embrace each of us and we could each visualize ourselves receiving that embrace.
The Mass concluded with fanfare and music, but the real treasure was deep within our hearts. We each had an encounter and would somehow never be the same.
I had the privilege of seeing the Pope later in the day at the Catholic University of America. He spoke to Catholic educators—university presidents and school-district superintendents. He spoke about the contemporary crisis of truth which is rooted in a crisis of faith. He emphasized that a Catholic educational institution ought to be a place thriving with the life of faith. When he spoke of this he raised his voice to say that “faith and reason never contradict.” He warned that without the Church, the individual can become lost as if on an “ideological chess-board” of endless amoral calculations. He exhorted educators to have “intellectual charity” for their students, to hope, to pray and to live the truth. After his speech, the Pope greeted the students gathered on the lawn outside the building to thunderous applause and exuberant cheers. The students even organized themselves to sing “Regina Caeli,” one of Benedict’s purported favorites.
The Pope’s day in Washington was a wonderful experience of faith, a celebration of Christ our Hope. His encouraging and well-meditated words will serve as food for thought for the American Church in the days and weeks to come. His witness encourages us to become more fully the “leaven of evangelical hope” and to bring the Good News to all the ends of America. ?