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Reflection on the Papal Visit
by Rev. Br. Pius Pietrzyk, OP

April 16th is a day I will not soon forget.  It’s not often that you are with Popes and Presidents all in one day.  The day began for well before my usual rising time, we had to get an early start if we were to be on time.  Fr. James Cuddy, OP, celebrated the Mass Pro Pontifice in honor of the Holy Father’s presence in our city.  I was his deacon and Br. Anthony Giambrone, OP, was our congregation, cantor, and lector. 

The three of us then made our way – Br. Anthony and I by train, Fr. James by carpool – on a cool but unusually beautiful day in the city of Washington.  The train was moderately filled with groggy commuters, most of whom took little notice of the two black-cloaked friars who ventured into their morning routine. 

As we made our way out of the Metro station, a man approached offering to guide us to our destination.  With the Pope in town, this man knew that we could be headed to only one place – to the White House to see the Pope and the President.  As I walked and chatted with this kind stranger, I learned that he, too, was Catholic.  He was clearly happy the Pope was in town.  But just as much, he was grateful to see a religious – and especially one dressed in habit – in his normally secular world.  For him, it was a happy intrusion of a tangible sign of religious faith – of his religious faith – into a place he rarely encountered it.  I often underestimate how powerful that simple sign of witness as a religious can be.

Having made my way through the maze of security precautions, I arrived on the south lawn of the White House.  Who would have thought such a beautiful patch of green and grass existed in Washington?  People had already begun to gather.  I could see pockets of Dominican sisters in the stands, as well as some Missionaries of Charity.  I was a few sections away from the main dais, just behind the Bishops, as I would soon learn.  After a bit of chatting with some new friends, we scoped out our spot, while the crowds were still sparse.  And then we waited. 

But the waiting was also a part of the experience.  We watched the great variety of people gradually filter in.  We felt the growing expectation of as the time of their appearance grew closer.  Mostly, we chatted in a way that strangers do when thrown together in a shared event.  So while we waited hours, looking back it does not seem to have been so very long.

Finally the moment arrived.  The great black limo rolled up the paved path directly behind us.  The Pope is in that car, and we’ll see him shortly.  Soon after the Anthems began.  We couldn’t see the Pope as he stepped out of the car from our vantage point, but the greetings at the car were mercifully short.  In very little time, he and the President took their place on the dais.  What a moment.  The President of the most powerful nation on earth stood together with this humble shepherd.  How different they looked.  The President stood ram-rod straight, with an almost military posture.  The Pope, his hands clasped at his chest, looked more relaxed somehow, more gentle.
In turn they each gave a short talk from prepared texts.  The President went first.  He was almost Catholic in his praise for the Church and for his clear admiration and affection for the Holy Father.  For a man who is often criticized for his oratorical skills, he has an uncanny way of speaking the language of the people.  It was a remarkable speech.  And then, it was the Pope’s turn.  His words, though accented in German, nevertheless were easily taken in.  And what words they were.  He seemed to have an intuitive understanding of America – our history, our ideals, our challenges.  The President himself was obviously impressed, as the ever-present and ever-recording microphones would later transmit to the world.

The event ended with a a tribute to the Pope in music.  The first was a beautiful rendition of the Our Father sung with harp accompaniment.  The last was a rousing version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic sung by the military choir – done with full martial pomp.  It was a moving display of music at once American and religious; a most fitting tribute by our President to our Pope.

The ceremony finished, these two made their way into the White House to meet together as great leaders and as men of faith.  After a short stop on Pennsylvania Avenue to watch the Popemobile parade through the screaming throngs, I made my way back to our Priory to rest and prepare for the rest of the day.

For, when God gives blessings, he gives them abundance.  While the experience of seeing the President and the Pope would, I suppose, have been enough to satisfy most everyone, it still paled in comparison with that evening, when I met the Pope. 

Our Dominican Priory of the Immaculate Conception in Washington is situated just across the street from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  For over a century, our friars have been ordained there, served there as confessors, said Masses there, and in recent times served as docents.  So, when the Shrine needed a fourth Deacon to serve the Pope as he celebrated Vespers with the Bishops of the United States, they kindly turned to us.  Since I was the eldest deacon from our Province, the Prior turned to me.  I think I said yes before he finished asking the question.

Vespers was scheduled to begin at 5:30pm; we were asked to be there at 3:00pm.  The location for Vespers was down in the crypt church of the Basilica, perhaps one of the most beautiful chapels in America.  The Shrine staff had specially commissioned a large chair for the Pope with matching chairs for his attending emcees.  They had even built a new dais to match the step on which the altar was built.

An hour or so before the Pope arrived, Msgr. Guido Marini and the other Papal Liturgists arrived to begin the rehearsal.  We were as docile as we could be to the instructions given in Italian through an interpreter. 

After the rehearsal, Msgr Marini gave a short ferverino, to the servers and deacons.  He said quite simply that the externals were straightforward – we had just gone over them, and we knew them.  He reminded us that the outward action of the liturgy existed as a way to bring the people into prayer, to raise their minds to God.  Our movements are not simply our moment for private creativity, but an opportunity to transcend ourselves by participating in the ancient traditions of the Church. He told us that this is only possible if we, too, were oriented to the Lord in prayer.  We were not simply to serve, but we were to pray with the Pope.  Pray with the Pope.  Until that moment, it had not quite dawned on me that that is exactly what we were to do.  We were not simply to meet him, or be in his presence.  We were to do something far more profound; we were to be in communion with him in prayer to the Lord.  Msgr. Marini also recalled fondly his opportunity to serve a different Pope in his own days as a young seminarian, and how moving that experience was for him.

Sometime later, as we watched the live television feed in the sacristy, we saw the images of the Popemobile as it made its way to the Shrine.  Soon enough, we knew he was right above us, in the Great Upper Church, greeting the people there.  We quickly organized into our rehearsed receiving line (which was more of a semi-circle) to await his arrival.  After a few minutes of excited silence, we heard the elevator make its way slowly down to the crypt church.  Then, the doors opened.

I can still see him in my memory, as he walked slowly and deliberately into the room.  He was clearly overwhelmed by the reaction of the crowds above us.  Yet, he took the time to greet each of us personally.  He stopped at each person, saying very little.  A few people said a line or two, the words lost with the fading sound of them.  And the Pope just smiled, nodded, and gently moved to the next person.  I watched him wind his way around the circle of people, and soon enough he stood before me.  “This is Br. Pius, he will be one of your deacons” I heard Msgr. Walter Rossi, the rector of the Shrine, say.  I had debated with myself over what I would say when this point came.  I finally concluded that the moment was too important for a few platitudes, or an easily forgotten phrase of welcome.  Instead, I chose to do what generations of Catholic have always done in the presence of the Vicar of Christ, I got down on my knee and kissed the Fisherman’s ring. 

As he finished greeting us, we lined up in procession, and waited as he vested in his surplice and cope.  Then the bell rang, and we walked into that great crypt chapel and we began to pray together with the Pope, as one Church – holy, Catholic, and apostolic.

Links to Benedict XVI's talks while in the USA.

Amityville Dominican recounts her conversation with Pope Benedict, during his NY visit. READ MORE

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