Pope John Paul II visits St. Louis Missouri

Day Two: At Eucharist With the Pope

by John Bookser Feister

    How do you pull off a Mass for 100,000? Start with buses--lots of them. Seemingly every school bus in the region today was enlisted to transport people from suburban pickup points down into St. Louis's TWA dome area for the papal Mass. Every available seat in the dome or adjoining convention center was spoken for, which adds up to over 100,000 attendees. It was billed as the largest U.S. indoor gathering ever.

    People had to be inside the buildings by 7:30 a.m. (so police could secure the complex), which meant the buses began loading early, about 4 a.m. For those traveling from outlying areas of the archdiocese or beyond, that meant leaving home at an ungodly hour.

    But none of the gathering crowd was complaining at pre-dawn outside TWA dome. Doug Mennemeir and his ninth-grade son, Ryan, from O'Fallon, Missouri, were in line about a half block back from the entrance, with plenty of people behind them. They won admission tickets through the lottery that was set up at their parish, St. Barnabas. (Archbishop Rigali had recommended lotteries to distribute the limited tickets.)

    Ryan had spent yesterday at the Light of the World Youth Rally and came back with his father today. Facing a block-long line at 6:30 a.m. didn't bother Doug: "You don't even think about that when you think of the greatness that's going to be inside." He's always known the pope was head of the Church, Doug says, "but when you see him in person it helps to put things into perspective."

    Rose Marie Pilipowski got into the Mass even though she had driven down from her home in suburban Chicago without tickets. "I had been praying to St. Jude [patron of lost causes] since the visit was announced in October." It seems she had some medals she wanted blessed, and she was still kicking herself for missing Pope John Paul II's visit to Chicago some 20 years ago.

    Getting desperate, she asked a priest if she could count a blessing by jumbotron TV outside the event in case she didn't get in. He told her, "Rose Marie, after driving down here without admission tickets, they're already blessed." On Saturday her faith paid off. She donned a sign around her neck in the Papal Plaza that said, "If St. Jude sent you with my ticket, then here I am." A journalist who had tickets for all events but couldn't stay for the Mass saw the sign and, well, you might say St. Jude came through!

    At Eucharist With the Pope

    The Mass itself was unforgettable, if not as electric as the youth rally. Three big choirs, a complete orchestra, procession after procession, hundreds of bishops, all cooperating like clockwork. The Holy Father came in from a parade route by popemobile, first touring through the convention center crowd, then being driven once around the inside perimeter of the cavernous hall of the main TWA dome.

    The papal Mass was dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the mercy of Jesus was on the pope's mind: "In the Mass and in Eucharistic Adoration we meet the merciful God of love that passes through the heart of Jesus Christ," he said in his homily. The homily was a challenge to America to more fully adopt the Gospel of Life, for Christians to be unconditionally pro-life in every situation: "I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary," he said.

    The crowd applauded at this point, as they had at some of his other principal points in his homily. Yet, the overwhelming majority of Americans, including Catholics, tell pollsters they support the death penalty. The State of Missouri had delayed an execution that had coincidentally been scheduled to occur during the pope's visit. (That move was denounced by the Vatican as a ploy to avoid negative publicity.)

    The pope also emphasized the importance of marriage and family, "the first school of social virtue and solidarity." The Massgoers broke into sustained applause when he said, "As the family goes, so goes the nation!" The Holy Father again sounded his theme of millennium preparation, calling all to a renewed sense of repentance and calling for anyone alienated from the Church for any reason to return and accept the mercy of Christ.

    Nurturing Faith

    Talking to people at the rallies, marches, on the streets and at Mass, a common theme emerges. People go to great lengths to see the pope because they are looking for a bedrock faith experience, the kind of foundational experience that happens only a few times during one's life.

    Gina Ponstingl says she brought her two young children to Mass for that reason. In 1984 she spent time in a coma after being struck head on in her auto by a drunk driver. "When I was in a coma I had a feeling like I met God. It was just such an overwhelming experience." She hopes that bringing her children to see the pope will bring them closer to God, too, "since the pope is like God." Her pastor helped her to get the tickets.

    Gina will have a rare souvenir from the event. A "friend of a friend," a local woodworker, made the presider's chair that the pope used during the Mass. There were some small scraps of wood left over, one of which she received. She wore it on a string around her neck at Mass so it would be blessed by the pope.

    The pope wrapped up his 30-hour visit with two events. First was an ecumenical prayer service to be held at Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, with Vice-president Al Gore in attendance. There the pope was expected to return to this pastoral visit's theme of freedom and responsibility--this time to address America's responsibility as a world leader. That service was underway when this entry was posted on American Catholic Online.

    After the prayer service there would be a very brief meeting with civil rights legend Rosa Parks, no doubt as a sign of solidarity with the U.S. bishops' conference, which in November targeted racism again as a priority. Parks is the woman whose refusal to yield her bus seat sparked the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950's.

    Finally the pope and the vice-president would have a courtesy meeting at the airport before Shepherd One (courtesy of TWA) and Air Force Two depart for Rome and Washington, D.C., respectively.

    John Bookser Feister is editor of American Catholic Online. His full report on the papal visit will appear in the April edition of St. Anthony Messenger magazine.

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