The week before the arrival of the Holy Father, the American media was abuzz with predictions about the reception he would receive from American Catholics. Fringe groups used the media to promote their agendas, and the specter of the sex abuse scandal threatened to overshadow the Holy Father’s visit. Bill Maher seized the opportunity to lash out at the Pope, comparing the Catholic Church to the FLDS cult. Cruel nicknames such as “Panzer Pope” resurfaced, and members of the media predicted a lukewarm reception at best. Such dire predictions made the unprecedented greeting Pope Benedict received from President Bush at Andrews AFB, and the spectacular White House welcoming ceremony with a record 13,000 participants, even more striking. The effect on both the general public and on celebrities like Rush Limbaugh came as a complete surprise. “I had trouble tearing myself away from the video (of the White House welcoming ceremony) to watch the Democrat debate,” quipped Limbaugh, who later admitted, “that event changed my life.”
The quiet power of Pope Benedict’s elegantly worded speeches and choice of sites to visit, such as the Synagogue in New York City, made a positive impression on the American people, according to a New York Post survey. This news heightened my excitement as I made plans to attend the Meeting with Youth and Seminarians at St. Joseph’s Seminary with my teenage daughter, Gabriela.
A devoted member of the John Paul II Generation, I was jubilant at the election of our wise and gentle shepherd, and thrilled at the opportunity to see him. As the bus drove past budding trees in the brilliant spring sunshine, I interviewed teens on their way to the Rally. Mary Rose Rodriguez, age 17, said, “I’m really excited to meet him because he sounds like a really holy person. I hope that I will see my life in a new light and spread the word.”
John Hargaden, age 18, who will be entering seminary next year, said, “Of course, Pope John Paul II was a man that was made for the TV camera. Pope Benedict’s referred to by many as a scholar in the Catholic faith. What I’m expecting from the Pope today is to show us how we need to deepen our faith as Catholics. I’m expecting that the Pope is going to be a voice of hope to us. ”
After hours spent listening to musicians in the hot sun, the crowd of 25,000, many of whom had spread blankets on the field, rose to watch Kelly Clarkson, and I was unsure whether the Holy Father would have the same effect on the youthful crowd. Another hour passed, and as the afternoon cooled, I admired the fashion show of traditional religious habits worn by hundreds of young religious from burgeoning new orders: the Missionaries of Charity, Legionnaires of Christ, New York’s own Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and Sisters of Life. I asked one of the Sisters of Life for a messge to the teens. She said, “Tell them not to be afraid to open their hearts to what Jesus has for them. He will return whatever they give Him with much more than they can possibly imagine.”
Soon the Jumbotrons showed the approach of the papal motorcade, and the listless gathering sprang to life. The roar started at one end of the field and spread as white and gold scarves were enthusiastically waved at the screens. A tender scene played out before us as Pope Benedict reached down to bless disabled children who greeted him in the chapel. Over fifty years ago, a young Joseph Ratzinger had a cousin with Down syndrome torn from his family by the Nazis, never to be seen again. Was it this memory that inspired his tenderness as he cupped the face of a little girl with Down syndrome in his hands? As the girl reached up to pat his hand, my heart was enflamed with joy. I told Gabriela, “Look that’s just what Christina does!” Christina is my youngest daughter, age 6 and she too has Down syndrome. When the pope asked the children to pray for him, his voice broke, and a bond, deeper than words, was forming in my heart for Pope Benedict. It was soon apparent that I wasn’t alone.
By the time the popemobile brought him to us, the assembly was jubilant, cheering and waving, as the Holy Father took the stage. The octogenarian pontiff with a twinkle in his eye raised both arms to greet first one side and then the other, raising the crescendo of cheers like an orchestra conductor. Chants of “We love you”, and “Que vive el papa!” began with the boisterous Mexican seminarians in front, and spread throughout the crowd. We sang “Happy Birthday” to Pope Benedict in German, and the former professor gave us, “an A+ in German pronunciation.”
The sunburned assembly that had waited for hours in food lines stood attentively as the pontiff delivered the longest address of his US visit. He referred to the images of American saints given to him by local students when he told us that, regardless of our backgrounds, holiness was possible, and warned us to avoid relativism that leads young people to despair and exploitation. He explained, “Dear friends, truth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules. It is a discovery of the One who never fails us; the One whom we can always trust. In seeking truth we come to live by belief because ultimately truth is a person: Jesus Christ. That is why authentic freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in; nothing less than letting go of self and allowing oneself to be drawn into Christ’s very being for others.” He concluded by exhorting the young people, “Nourished by personal prayer, prompted in silence, shaped by the Church’s liturgy you will discover the particular vocation God has for you. Embrace it with joy. You are Christ’s disciples today. Shine His light upon this great city and beyond. Show the world the reason for the hope that resonates within you. Tell others about the truth that sets you free.”
The event concluded as we sang the Our Father and the Litany of the Saints. Kelly Clarkson sang the “Ave Maria”, but by now there was no doubt who the real star of the day was. The Holy Father had reached out in a paternal embrace to his children who had responded eagerly and were reluctant to let him go. When the popemobile was seen leaving the field, many of us ran to follow it, to wish our beloved Pope a final farewell.
Fr. Justin Semanti of the Bronx, whose youth group at Holy Rosary parish is preparing to attend World Youth Day, said, “It was encouraging to see all these young people here with the pope, showing their love and devotion to him and the Church, and just a real springtime, I think, to bring this about in New York and to all of America. It’s a really exciting and encouraging time to be a Catholic, to be a young person in the Church today.”
It seems that springtime is just beginning.