April 20. I have a date today. To be totally honest, I’m not really looking forward to it. For one thing, I’m not sure about the guy. He seems like a nice-enough man, impressively intelligent and admirably energetic—considering his 81 years, anyway. But I already know we differ markedly on many issues that are of deep importance to me. For another thing, it’s kind of a logistical nightmare. I have to get from my house in New Jersey to Yankee Stadium without a car due to tight security, and at eight months of pregnancy I’m not relishing the trek. Oh, and 58,000 other people are coming along.
Still, as an American Catholic, I feel I ought not pass up the opportunity to attend a papal Mass, no matter my misgivings or the transportation obstacles. So here I am on my way to a date with Pope Benedict XVI.
NOTE: I didn’t actually liveblog this, as I attended as a civilian and we hoipolloi weren’t allowed laptops in the stadium. And I wanted you to experience the day with me in proper succession so I didn’t break it out into separate posts. Hang in there; there’re snapshots!
9:58 a.m. I leave the house to drop my three-year-old off with the sitter, then drive across the Hudson River and park near a subway stop in Harlem. There are more white people on the D train to Yankee Stadium than I’ve ever seen. A contingent of young women wear black windbreakers emblazoned with the words Choose Life. Although clearly I am bearing the consequence of having heeded their message, none of them offer me a seat. A cheer goes up when the subway conductor announces the stop.
10:40 a.m. Hordes of faithful inch out of the station and toward the stadium. Legions of New York’s finest herd us toward the gates. Despite the cattle conditions, people—of every age, color and accent—are remarkably polite, chatting excitedly about the pope’s earlier visit to Ground Zero; weather reports for the day (overcast and chilly); the preceding Concert of Hope and its headliner, Harry Connick Jr. When we get to the gate, though, the cheer turns to anxiety and annoyance as Mass-goers realize there are fewer than a dozen metal detectors set up for the thousands of us. It takes 20 minutes to move the last 10 feet. One of the security personnel decides to unpack the entire contents of my regulation-sized purse, and in the end confiscates my apple (did she think I might lob it at His Holiness?). Unbelievably, I don’t reach my seat until after noon.
12:04 p.m. The Concert of Hope has already begun when I find my seat. The country’s most famous ballpark has been transformed for the occasion into a sea of white, purple and gold, the Vatican’s colors. The elevated stage is set up in the basic shape of a baseball diamond, with the pope’s throne just over second base. The first act involves dancers in white unitards affixed with wings. Much more interesting is the parade of priests: pastors in white robes, seminarians in black, Franciscan monks in brown. There’s a gaggle of nuns in bright blue veils, another group of sisters in gray, a choir robed in purple and gold.
12:30 p.m. The Harlem Gospel Choir gets the crowd on their feet with “Oh, Happy Day.” As a rule, Catholics don’t get on their feet, at least not to sing and dance; there’s enough mandated sit-kneel-standing in Mass. None of the musical acts—not Ronan Tynan, Marcello Giordano, Jose Feliciano, Stephanie Mills, not even Harry Connick Jr.—induces the kind of eyes-closed, hands-in-the-air worship I’ve seen at evangelical services. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the Harlem choir isn’t Catholic. They’ve got way too much soul.
1:47 p.m. Some diva takes the stage to warble R&B renditions of classic hymns, and the Concert of Hope officially becomes the Concert of Nope, You Can Hope But It Ain’t Yet the Pope. I take a bathroom break, and find a line at the ladies’ room 58 people long. There’s a nun guarding the exit to make sure no one jumps the line. There are many ways to serve His Eminence today, and I would argue hers is among the noblest.
2 p.m. Mass is supposed to begin now, but instead of the Popemobile, the dancers in white unitards are back, this time unfurling giant paper birds. A flock of doves—actually, more likely white homing pigeons—are released to flap around the ballpark. These pigeons are definitely not from New York.
2:17 p.m. “He’s here!” “It’s him!” The Popemobile finally appears on the Jumbotrons, then comes into view from Monument Park out in left field. Soon Benedict himself is visible, dressed in white, genuflecting slowly from within the little vehicle. He gets to home plate, then disappears into the Yankee dugout, presumably to change outfits. The crowd waves the yellow and white dinner napkins we were handed upon entry and begins to chant: “We want the pope!” “Be-ne-dic-tu!”
2:40 p.m. Benedict steps onto the stage. He walks slowly, gripping his golden staff, stopping to wave and acknowledge the crowd. He is wearing a gold miter and vestments, in contrast to the cream of the cardinals who processed before him. I’d read the cream represents anniversaries; turns out we’re celebrating the bicentennial of the creation of New York, Philadelphia and other dioceses.
3:02 p.m. When the lector steps up for the first reading, I realize that of the hundreds of brilliantly robed celebrants on the stage, she is the only woman. The second lector is a woman, too. Oh, and the two sign-language interpreters.
3:20 p.m. Benedict begins his homily. He has a rather surprisingly gentle, mellifluous voice. I took his sermon to mean that as much as we ought to value our freedom in this, the land of the free, freedom means little without truth, and that we are obligated to pursue justice and good even as we cherish our liberty. “In this land of religious freedom,” he says, “Catholics found freedom—not just to practice their faith but to participate in civic life.” When he says that obligation extends to protecting “the most defenseless among us, the unborn child in the mother’s womb,” the crowd erupts into its first ovation of the sermon.
4:15 p.m. An army of priests fans out around the stadium to distribute holy communion. Though the event has gone off fairly smoothly so far, all organization appears to crumble at this all-important sacrament. The crowd watches in envy as about 40 super V.I.P.s receive the host from the pope himself—envy not just at their proximity to the Holy Father, but at the speed and orderliness of their rite. For the rest of us, it’s a scrum. The priests are escorted into the stadium seats by cops and Knights of Columbus, in their silly feather-boa hats, where cupped hands are thrust toward the golden bowls, all but grabbing at the wafers.
5:00 p.m. Mass is over. The pope exits the stadium in his bullet-proof golf cart. As I make my way home, I feel glad to have experienced a landmark event for American Catholics—though being in the papal presence did little to answer my many questions about the church, its future or my place in it. Still, I kind of liked Benedict. I’d see him again.