NEW YORK — “It was all I wanted and even more.”
That’s how local parishioner Peggy Decker summed up her experience of joining nearly 57,000 other Catholics for Mass with Pope Benedict XVI at Yankee Stadium April 20. She had hoped the Mass would strengthen her faith and remind her why she is Catholic, and it did just that, she said.
Decker, who belongs to St. Rose Parish in Lima, was one of nearly 500 diocesan Catholics who journeyed to the Bronx for the Mass. Many of them boarded buses before dawn in order to reach the stadium in time for the liturgy, only to climb back onto the buses immediately after Mass and head for home.
Papal pilgrims knew it was going to be a long, tiring day, but most felt the reward was well worth their efforts.
“It’s just an incredible chance to see the Holy Father come to America,” said 17-year-old Michael Harris, who was traveling with his uncle, Father William Coffas, on a bus that departed from St. Patrick Parish in Victor at 4:30 a.m.
The trip from western New York to the Bronx is nothing compared to the pope’s lengthy journey from Rome to America, Michael said. He attends Mass at St. Joseph Parish in Penfield, where his father, Deacon Duncan Harris, ministers, and also at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Geneva, where Father Coffas is parochial vicar.
“I’m very excited to be here because it’s a wonderful opportunity to see the pope in your own country. That rarely happens, and to share that experience with my nephew is one of the things I really wanted to do,” Father Coffas said.
Father Coffas also said he was looking forward to seeing Pope Benedict’s message of hope personified in the various participants of the liturgy.
“It’s very encouraging, and it reminds us how vibrant the church is,” he said.
The bus carrying Father Coffas, Michael and dozens of other diocesan pilgrims arrived at the stadium at 10:30 a.m. and parked several blocks away. Pilgrims joined a steady column of travelers heading toward the ballpark. As they walked, they passed street vendors selling all sorts of papal memorabilia, from T-shirts and buttons emblazoned with Pope Benedict’s likeness to miniature Vatican flags.
The travelers passed through security checkpoints and metal detectors at the stadium’s gates and were in their seats by about noon, just in time for the beginning of a “Concert of Hope,” which featured such artists as Harry Connick Jr., Ronan Tynan and the Harlem Gospel Choir. The crowd in the stands sang and clapped along as New York Police Department and Secret Service sharpshooters surveyed the scene from the tops of nearby buildings and two circling helicopters.
Pope Benedict was to appear on the field at about 2:15 p.m., and the sense of anticipation hanging over the stadium grew exponentially as the minutes ticked by. As the moment of his arrival drew nearer, the thousands of people packing the stands stopped sending the “wave” around the stadium and instead began chanting “Benedetto,” which is Italian for “Benedict.”
The excitement reached fever pitch when the crowd caught sight of the popemobile behind the outfield. It entered a track around the inside of the field and slowly made its way around left field and down the first-base line until it reached the base of the elaborate gold, white and purple stage. As Pope Benedict passed in the popemobile, those in the stands cheered, clapped and waved the gold and white handkerchiefs they’d received at the gate.
The crowd continued to cheer as Pope Benedict took his place at the end of a long line of clergy, which processed slowly around the stages and to the chairs set up on both sides of the altar. Pope Benedict took his place behind the altar, and the applause had barely subsided when someone in the stands shouted, “We love you, Benedict!” and the cheering began anew. The crowd responded to the pope the way a throng of concert-goers might respond to a rock star.
Not all of these people had flocked to the stadium just to see a famous figure, however. Many of the pilgrims were drawn by a love and respect for Pope Benedict.
“I was surprised by how electric the crowd was when the pope came out. There was such a love and devotion toward the Holy Father,” Decker said.
Those sentiments were revealed when a reverent silence fell upon the crowd as the Mass-goers heard the pope speak his first words to them in a soft, German-accented voice.
“Peace be with you,” Pope Benedict said.
That was just the first of many silences that would fall over the stadium during the next few hours. Pilgrims listened raptly to Pope Benedict’s homily, which touched on the Catholic Church’s growth in America over the past two centuries as well as the gift of freedom and the responsibility that comes with it. He also mentioned the youth rally he attended the previous day, urged adults to pray for and support young people, who are the future of the church, and addressed those young people directly.
“Young men and women of America, I urge you; open your hearts to the Lord’s call to follow him in the priesthood and religious life,” he said.
Michael said he was impressed by the Mass in general and Pope Benedict’s homily in particular.
“I loved the part particularly about the future of the church and young people and vocations. Pope Benedict came out and publicly stated this is the future of our church, so we need to support them,” he said.
His uncle, Father Coffas, was impressed with the homily’s message of hope and focus on Catholic unity.
“We are reminded of a fundamental truth: that the church’s unity has no other basis than the word of God, made flesh in Christ Jesus our Lord. All external signs of identity, all structures, associations and programs, valuable or even essential as they may be, ultimately exist only to support and foster the deeper unity which, in Christ, is God’s indefectible gift to his church,” Pope Benedict said.
“That really spoke to me, especially in a time when we have so much hurt,” Father Coffas said. “There are so many issues that divide us, especially with church closings. To call to mind that our unity is not focused on a building was pretty inspiring. The church needed this burst of hope tremendously.”
Judy Costello, a member of Peace of Christ Parish in Rochester and a liturgical musician at Irondequoit’s St. Salome Parish, shared Father Coffas’ sentiments.
“I just like the mood of hope and healing, because the world needs it really badly. I hope this is a new beginning for the church in America, at least, and the church in the world,” Costello said.
Katrina Burns, a member of the Newman Community at the University of Rochester, said she liked how Pope Benedict acknowledged that American Catholics are a diverse group, but all share one faith.
As they made their way back to the buses after Mass, many diocesan pilgrims were in good spirits even though some were tired, hungry and sunburned. Patricia Galante and her husband, Joseph, enjoyed the entire Mass, which she said was beautifully well-done. The couple took a trip to Rome last May and had hoped to see Pope Benedict then, but he was on a trip to Brazil at the time, she said.
“We said, ‘We have to see this pope,'” said Galante, who belongs to St. Jerome Parish in East Rochester. “It was just the best thing. I’m glad I came.”
Don Udavchak of Church of the Transfiguration in Pittsford said he thoroughly enjoyed the Mass despite the chilly 50-degree weather and his bird’s-eye view of the stadium.
“I froze. I was up in pigeon heaven. It was right there with the pigeons,” he said. “It was beautiful. I just sat there enthralled. I was moved by the hierarchy, and I also was amazed at the people’s positive reaction. There were so many beautiful voices around me, I didn’t hear myself sing.”