21 April 2008

On Pilgrimage

Friday, 18 April 2008
8 p.m.

The first day of our pilgrimage to see our Holy Father is far from over. We’re still in Pennsylvania and we’ve got hours to go. Though I’ve been on cross-country bus rides many times before, today is different—today there is something unique about what it is I am going to become a part of. I have a feeling of being part of something far, far greater than simply a sightseeing venture or seeking out an enriching experience to satisfy my curiosity (though I will confess that such motivations are not entirely beyond me). There is something momentous happening on the world stage that I, in my own small way, participate in, for Pope Benedict is more than a functionary or a hierarch. He is a custodian, a mystagogue, a teacher, a father, not just to me but to millions who look upon him in person or through the media.

The mild earthquake at 4 a.m. this morning helped to give us a sense that something important is afoot, though I am not in the habit of assigning deep significance to these things. But I do find earthquakes in Chicagoland worth noting.

This bus ride has provided ample opportunity for reflection on the recent writings of the pope, including his recent addresses to the U.S. bishops and university faculties. It was after a long hiatus over the lunch break that a remark from the former gave me pause. We’d been waiting for well over an hour because the bus had leaked some fuel and needed to report something it to the authorities; meanwhile, I was ready to be underway.

Only afterward did I realize the source of my discomfort. My life in the seminary is highly structured, and every moment there is something that could be getting done. For sustained periods of time I operate under a constant pressure to be moving down the list of things to be done and checked off—studies, prayer, chores, exercise. Even leisure can get pigeonholed in this way.

What I was given this afternoon was a taste of what life was like before all that, when it was a simple, timeless childhood. Nothing to be done, nowhere to go. Just live the moment.

Even more important than the experience of this little respite and my gratitude for it was being able to share it with some of the men I’ve lived alongside for the last couple of years. Of all the elements of the happy life, friendships suffer most from the need to always be making progress towards some goal, for they admit of no urgency or intentionality if they are to retain the name of friendship. Earlier that day, I’d read over Benedict’s words to the bishops, when he mentioned in his closing remarks the need for priestly fraternity.

Each of us knows how important priestly fraternity has been in our lives. That fraternity is not only a precious possession, but also an immense resource for the renewal of the priesthood and the raising up of new vocations. I would close by encouraging you to foster opportunities for ever greater dialogue and fraternal encounter among your priests, and especially the younger priests. I am convinced that this will bear great fruit for their own enrichment, for the increase of their love for the priesthood and the Church, and for the effectiveness of their apostolate.

How dangerous it would be to pare down my priesthood to a highly structured, pressure-driven lifestyle; yet there is danger, too, in seeing relationships as a means to greater effectiveness and fulfillment. It is a matter of zealous pursuit without having been the result of a conscious decision; in other words, a habitual disposition to pursue the good. Those Greeks were on to something.

It has been a blissfully undeliberate day. Here’s hoping there will be a few more to come before this gig is up.

Sunday, 20 April 2008
9:30 a.m. EST

Guess what? I saw the pope yesterday.

From the lowly man’s view of things, it was unbelievable just how much waiting was involved. Collectively, millions of man-hours were expended by various groups who traveled for a few minutes in the company of the Holy Father, but there are few who would not have judged their sacrifices of time and the discomforts of travel worthy of the reward they received.

We arrived at the rally site around 10 a.m. yesterday morning, and I secured a spot right in front of a platform that extended out from the stage into the crowd, hoping Benedict would at least come out to greet the seminarians assembled there if not come down to the lawn to shake our hands. With about seven hours until the pope’s scheduled arrival, I tied on a bandana, chugged some bottled water, and got settled.

Each of the acts scheduled during the hours prior to Benedict’s arrival managed to occupy the attention with spectacle and thus helped to pass the time. The best performer was a Franciscan priest by the name of Fr. Stan Fortuna, who had a short act woven from be-bop, funk, and quotations from recent papal addresses. With a 5-string bass guitar and a mixing machine he operated with his feet, he looped his own playing (a la Keller Williams) and soloed over himself, rapping all the while. It was by far the least flashy, while also being the most entertaining, though he was only on stage for ten minutes. Other acts included Third Day (who did some ah … “interesting” things with the Nicene creed) and Matt Mahar, who managed to lead the whole crowd in praise & worship that was probably the most effective in setting the tone for the pontiff’s arrival. There were numerous acts by local kids doing various cultural performances that were pretty good, but I was just too stinking tired to enjoy them. My loss.

Kelly Clarkson was the last act before the pope, and if the point was to bring in a big celebrity to get everyone excited then I guess she did her job—though I’m not sure how her rendition of “Since You’ve Been Gone” fit in with the whole “Christ our Hope” thing. I suppose the kids loved it, which is the real reason the organizers sought her out. A passage from the Gospel came to mind in the midst of all this, though: “What did you come out to the East Coast to see—a celebrity? Why then did you come?” (Mt 11:7f, slightly adapted)

Back to Benedict.

Seminarians were given access to the front section of the lawn, closest to the stage, and as the day passed it became more and more crowded. Short guys kept trying to work their way in front of me, and I found it difficult not to be rude! I felt bad for them (especially when the yellow and white hankies were being waved) as they probably couldn’t see much of anything, but my hours of standing in the same place were being reduced to nothing and it was hard not to resent it. Because I was determined not to lose my spot, I held tight and refused to go for lunch, munching on a couple of granola bars I had in my pocket. In between acts, we chanted “Be-ne-detto [clap, clap, clapclapclap],” “Christus vincit,” and whatever else was easy to pick up on the fly. When it got too packed to move, the event staff brought us water and we passed it back to those behind us after snagging one for ourselves. The sun was fierce on the sea of black cassocks and suits, and not a few faces were red and swollen from its rays.

By the time four o’clock rolled around, my dogs were barking. I’d been standing in the same place for nearly seven hours and my resolve was flagging. There would be respites here and there; when the bishops and cardinals started filing in, I managed to shake hands with Archbishop Naumann (my ordinary) and exchange a few words.

Once the pope showed up on the seminary grounds for his meeting with handicapped children, the energy went way up—he is here, this is what we’d been waiting for! We watched the prayer service in the chapel via a video feed to the Jumbotron, greedily devouring every glimpse we could get of the Holy Father as he blessed each of the handicapped children who sat on either side of the aisle. We prayedthe responses to his invocations and signed ourselves when he blessed the assembly, though it was all taking place on the other side of campus.

As he moved down the aisle, he tenderly signed each forehead with the cross and cradled the children’s faces between his hands. One little girl reached up and put her hands on his as he did this, a gesture that brought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t tell you why it wasn’t anything more than sentimentality, but such things are rare enough for me that I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t. Plus, there was plenty of “awww” being tossed about, and this happens to be an utterance I find abhorrent. It didn’t bother me that this was a choreographed moment—something genuine shone through the script and registered with me in spite of it.

It took another forty-five minutes for him to get onstage, but once he was there, all bodily fatigue was forgotten. When he came out, he immediately walked out right in front of us on the stage extension, and the whole mass of thousands of people pressed us forward onto the fence. Everyone was packed so closely together that had anyone fainted, they would’ve been held up by the force of everyone else straining towards the Holy Father. He came within ten yards of me, and it was electrifying—in retrospect, I realize there were few non-dignitaries that got to be that close to him. Out of hundreds of thousands of people who will be seeing him during his time in the US, I was one of the luckier ones.

The cheering lasted for something like fifteen minutes—it just wouldn’t stop. Benedict was very gracious and patient, though he did try to quiet us down when cardinal Egan was interrupted by a particularly rousing chorus of “Viva Il Papa,” as if to say, “This is no big deal for me, I deal with this all the time … but I wouldn’t tick him off if I were you.” It was all immensely entertaining for us, though I’m sure it made watching it on TV a little frustrating. (They didn’t have to ride halfway across the country on a bus and stand in the sun half the day to see him … so there …)

Another great moment was when one of the youths presenting the pope one of his gifts stepped forward to embrace him, and the whole front section started chanting “FU-TURE-PRIEST! FU-TURE-PRIEST!” I’m not sure the pope heard it but the bishops did, and we all regarded ourselves immensely entertaining.

It’s the little things, you know.

All that chicanery ceased when the pope delivered his address; the crowd was all steadfastness and rapt attention. Though he read the whole thing in his typical no-frills style, he managed to create some dramatic moments as he outlined the challenges that the youth face. His remarks to seminarians were pointed and I intend to look them up in order to pore over them later. There was nothing spectacular or revolutionary in them; yet the simplicity of what he had to say, calling us back to prayer, contemplation, liturgy, and friendship with Christ, should be taken all the more seriously for that very reason.

At this point all sense of time had vanished so I couldn’t tell you if he was up there for one hour or for three. I’d like to believe it was our enthusiastic response to his entrance that motivated Benedict to come down in front of us again to say goodbye; the crowd pressed in again with the same fervor as before. This time, I forsook the camera and just soaked in the encounter, and I called out “thank you!” to the pontiff as he passed by, though he didn’t hear me—I was too hoarse to be heard over the roar.

When the final hymn was over (they picked, of all things, “City of God”!), we all made our way back to the buses and were finally able to connect with the seminarians we’d been hoping to meet up with but were prevented because of the crowds. A few moments were all we could afford, and then off to our separate ways. There were even a few surprises, including a former FOCUS missionary, recently wed, and his pregnant bride! By this time my camera batteries had died and so some crucial moments went unrecorded. The memories will serve.

The day ended as a mirror image of the first half: wake up, shower, Mass, eat, bus ride, SEE POPE, bus ride, eat, Mass, shower, crawl back into bed. All told, we were on our feet for over ten hours without a break, and when I peeled off my cassock and clerical choke collar a modest helping of heat rash was waiting for me. The shower rinsed off hours of sweat, dust, and sunblock in a cleansing that could only be described as baptismal.

Yet before all that, as we all knelt in the conference center auditorium after communion, our silence was more than just fatigue after an exhausting day; it was silence born of a deeper sense of purpose, of mission, of grace. Our travels had exercised in us a greater faithfulness to the call of God, like metal that is polished with use. The crowds, the fanfare, the spectacle was all gone, and what remained was the memory of a “humble servant laboring in the vineyard of the Lord.”

Sunday, 21 April 2008
11:59 p.m.

We’re back safe at the seminary, 17 hours of road behind us. The first thing I did was check the news to see what the coverage was saying, and I’ve found a couple of good sites worth checking out:

The New York Times—one, and two

Pictures forthcoming.

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